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Chill greets proposal for Pinellas college

State and city officials oppose a Seminole lawmaker's bid to create a four-year university in St. Petersburg.

By SHELBY OPPEL and BARRY KLEIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 11, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Sen. Don Sullivan's effort to establish a four-year university in St. Petersburg ran into trouble Monday during its first legislative hearing.

State university system Chancellor Adam Herbert argued strenuously against it. A majority of the Senate Education committee approved an amendment that calls for another year of study.

The reaction wasn't any better at home.

University of South Florida and St. Petersburg officials are worried the bill would roll back gains made last year when the state Cabinet -- after considerable lobbying -- gave USF permission to enroll freshmen and sophomores at its Bayboro campus.

Sullivan, R-Seminole, wants St. Petersburg Junior College to provide the first two years of instruction at the new school, which would replace the USF branch.

That arrangement would be a mistake, said St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer.

"When we won the day last year there was jubilation. Now, in one fell swoop, it is being undone," said Fischer, who said Pinellas County needs an independent school that offers a full university experience.

"I can't see where this is an advance," said Bill Heller, the dean at USF's St. Petersburg campus. "It would take away what really makes sense for this county -- to have a strong community college presence and a strong four-year university presence."

Sullivan's bill would create a total of three new universities. The others would be at what is now USF's Sarasota campus, and at a branch of Florida Atlantic University in Broward County.

The goal, he said, is to help students who want a college degree but can't or won't commute to USF's main campus in Tampa, or to FAU's in Boca Raton.

Since most of the facilities already are in place, Sullivan said, start-up costs would be minimal.

Both Herbert and Sen. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton, who proposed tabling the idea for further study, challenged that contention.

Herbert also argued that USF, with the support of the university system, already is working to meet Sullivan's goal of awarding more baccalaureate degrees to Pinellas residents.

Last fall, the state said USF could begin a gradual expansion in Pinellas County by offering a limited number of freshman and sophomore courses. USF expects to have 150 lower-division students on campus this fall.

Sullivan said the school is moving much too slowly. "That's in a county of almost 1-million (people)," he noted.

Sullivan said his plan anticipates that a full complement of freshmen and sophomores will enroll in the new universities. But community colleges will provide the faculty to teach them.

"My aim is to get some education in my community in the cheapest possible way," Sullivan said.

Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, is among those who support Sullivan's bill.

But Sebesta said he would prefer "to go for broke" by converting the Bayboro campus to a traditional four-year institution, without contracting with SPJC. He said he felt confident that he and Sullivan could resolve that difference as the proposal takes shape.

Sullivan's bill calls for the state's Postsecondary Education Planning Commission to develop recommendations by January 2001 about how the conversion of the branch campuses would actually work. Students would enroll beginning in fall 2002.

Presumably, one of the issues to be addressed would be the fate of USF's nationally recognized marine science department, which is housed at the St. Petersburg campus.

There have been rumors that Florida State University would make a grab for the department if Sullivan's bill passes.

The marine science program would be a plum for any institution. This year, according to director Peter Betzer, it will attract $15-million in federal contracts and grants.

That would be a huge plus for FSU, which needs to up its research dollars if it hopes to achieve admission into the prestigious Association of American Universities, a goal shared by USF.

FSU, however, denies it is eyeing one of USF's academic jewels.

"This time of year, there is always a lot of paranoia and rumors," said FSU provost Larry Abele. "We think it's a wonderful program, of the highest quality, and would love to have it. But this is the first I've heard about us getting it."

The bill's next stop is in a committee led by Senate Majority Leader Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor. Latvala supports the bill and told Sullivan he would "fix" the matter in his committee.

Senate procedure allows for Latvala's committee to approve Sullivan's original bill and discard Klein's amendment calling for a study. Klein could try again to delay the plans when the bill reaches a full vote on the Senate floor.

The House version of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Debby Sanderson, R-Fort Lauderdale, has not been heard in either of two committees.

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