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Pinellas university plan cut short
By SHELBY OPPEL and BARRY KLEIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 6, 2000
TALLAHASSEE -- In the end, state Sen. Don Sullivan didn't get the new university he so badly wants in St. Petersburg.
But he did get to watch his opponents squirm.
Early on the last day of the annual legislative session, Sullivan persuaded the Senate to sign off on a plan to create new "comprehensive" universities in Pinellas and Sarasota counties.
Though loosely worded, the measure opened the door wide to Sullivan's goal since early March: a new four-year university, independent of the University of South Florida, on the Bayboro campus.
For seven hours Friday, USF lobbyists and supporters worked the Capitol, urging House lawmakers to reject Sullivan's plan once it reached their chamber. But House Speaker John Thrasher, who never expressed much interest in the issue, chose not to bring it to a vote.
Lacking the House's approval, the measure officially died when that chamber adjourned at about 7:20 p.m.
But it wasn't a total loss, said Sullivan, who promised to renew his effort next year. He also put $50,000 in the state budget to study the issue.
Even his critics admit Sullivan forced USF and state university system Chancellor Adam Herbert to pay stricter attention to the needs of the St. Petersburg campus.
"Whether it goes through or doesn't go through, I think both (Pinellas and Sarasota counties) are winners," said Sullivan, shortly before the final gavel fell.
Sullivan's campaign helped persuade fellow lawmakers to earmark $4.2-million specifically for the St. Petersburg campus. Campus dean Bill Heller said the money will be used to increase enrollment and create new programs, including undergraduate degrees in graphic arts, museum studies and environmental studies.
Sullivan's efforts also spurred several concessions from USF officials in Tampa.
Interim USF President Richard Peck agreed this week to loosen restrictions on enrollment in St. Petersburg. Those limits have been a source of considerable irritation in Pinellas, where leaders for years have been calling for faster growth.
The campus currently houses about 3,400 students. It has room for as many as 10,000.
In fact, Peck said, enrollment is so tight on the Tampa campus that USF soon will begin sending out acceptance letters that direct applicants to the St. Petersburg branch.
"We want to provide access for all the people who want to go there," he said.
In recent weeks, Peck has expressed various levels of dismay with Sullivan's proposal, which he said would have created an "unaccredited, half-baked college."
But it certainly got the university's attention, he said.
"I think we would have made these changes, but maybe not as quickly."
Sullivan argues that a county the size of Pinellas should have its own four-year university. To complete their degrees, most students at the St. Petersburg campus must commute to the main Tampa campus for certain courses.
But Sullivan's effort was roundly criticized by community and university leaders.
A number of the most prominent professors on the St. Petersburg campus already had expressed their opposition to the proposal, which they called a "dismemberment."
They noted that a number of programs at the two campuses would have lost their accreditation at least in the short term, reducing the value of any degree that was earned.
Darryl Paulson, professor of political science at the USF St. Petersburg campus, questioned the timing of the proposal.
"USF is essentially leaderless right now," said Paulson, referring to the fact that incoming president Judy Genshaft won't take over until at least July. "Who speaks for USF right now?"
Genshaft could not be reached for comment Friday. While she joined a conference call Thursday with Herbert, Peck and USF lobbyists to hear about the status of Sullivan's proposal, Genshaft has said she is leaving decisions about the branch campuses to Peck until she arrives.
Sullivan's measure seemed backward to his critics: It would have created the two new schools andthen required a study to determine if they were needed.
"It's like saying "ready, fire, aim,' " Peck said. "We thought it made more sense to aim first."
The study would have been done by the state Postsecondary Education Planning Commission in consultation with Herbert and an independent, objective evaluator. If the study identified a need for greater access to baccalaureate degrees for Pinellas and Sarasota residents -- which Sullivan was confident it would -- Herbert would have been required to sketch a plan for implementation by January.
That process made sense to Bill Proctor, the commission's director.
"I think we need to look at the idea," he said. "Of the 50 largest counties in America, only five don't have public universities. Two are in Florida: Broward and Pinellas. I think the county could support its own university."