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A Times Editorial

Keeping USF intact

New President Judy Genshaft needs to act decisively to protect USF's interests in the midst of chaotic changes in Florida's university system.

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 23, 2000

Through no fault of her own, new University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft didn't get much of a honeymoon. Thanks to Gov. Jeb Bush and some meddling legislators, the ground is violently shifting under the entire university system, and USF, which has few powerful friends in Tallahassee, is especially vulnerable to the changes the resulting political restructuring could bring. Genshaft will have to work quickly to consolidate USF's status as a strong and growing research institution, and she will need the help of all those who appreciate the irreplaceable role USF plays in the Tampa Bay community.

Genshaft can't do much about the demise of the Board of Regents and the uncertain future of the university system's governance. But she has a more pressing concern: heading off the political effort to carve USF into pieces. Subdividing USF into two or three mini-colleges would not be in Tampa Bay's best interests, and Genshaft should be able to make that case to community leaders throughout the region. To do so, however, she will have to move beyond the general assurances made by her predecessors.

During last spring's legislative session, state Sen. Don Sullivan, R-Seminole, nearly succeeded with a one-man crusade to create independent colleges at USF's regional campuses in St. Petersburg and Sarasota. With the help of incoming Senate President John McKay, R-Sarasota, and other powerful lawmakers, Sullivan will be in a stronger position next year. Sullivan's flawed effort would decimate the faculties and endanger the accredited programs already established on those campuses, but the impetus behind it is valid: Past USF administrations have resisted taking some of the steps necessary to provide adequate opportunities for undergraduate students at USF's regional campuses.

If Genshaft doesn't offer a concrete and expansive plan to fulfill the Bayboro campus' potential, Sullivan's drastic proposal may win broader support in Pinellas County. Genshaft has gotten off to a good start by broaching ideas, such as greater autonomy in budgeting and tenure, that previous USF leaders have been unwilling to consider. But she has only a few months to win community support for a plan that makes the Bayboro campus a full partner in USF's continued growth.

Former USF President Betty Castor took an important step in her last days in office by winning approval last year -- over the opposition of administrators of other Pinellas colleges -- of the expansion of freshman and sophomore courses on the Bayboro campus. That success can provide a foundation for a comprehensive plan to keep USF intact.

Castor had reason to believe she had done everything necessary to make life as simple as possible for her successor, but Tallahassee politicians had other ideas. In addition to all of her other new responsibilities -- including educating tens of thousands of students, overseeing a medical school, expanding USF's research base and implementing the governor's One Florida policies -- Genshaft has stepped into the middle of a battle that will determine the future of this region's public university.

Her initial steps have been encouraging, but she and all other USF supporters have several difficult months ahead of them.

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