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    Senators cringe at USF plans

    As USF's president lays out her vision, two lawmakers say that proposals for regional campuses fall short.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 5, 2000

    [Times photo: Kristen Schmid]
    Rick Fender, USF's associate vice president of administrative services, dons a hat with horns to compete in a "Do You Know Your Bull" school trivia contest.
    TAMPA -- University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft outlined her plans Wednesday for the school's future, which she said will include substantial changes to USF campuses in St. Petersburg and Sarasota.

    But even before she stepped to the microphone, two of the state's most powerful lawmakers were warning that won't be enough.

    In an interview this week, John McKay, the Bradenton Republican expected to be the next president of the Florida Senate, said USF's Sarasota-Manatee campus needs millions of dollars in maintenance and greatly enhanced course offerings.

    The implied threat: that he's ready to make the Sarasota campus into an independent university.

    "It doesn't matter one iota to me whether the campus remains USF-Sarasota or becomes University X-Y-Z," said McKay, who has told Genshaft she is running out of time.

    As for USF's St. Petersburg campus, McKay said he will follow the lead of State Sen. Don Sullivan, the Pinellas Republican who strongly supports making that branch independent.

    Sullivan said Wednesday he thinks a St. Petersburg university could serve as the showpiece for a new tier of four-year schools that would focus primarily on undergraduate education.

    He is proposing combining USF's branch campus with St. Petersburg Junior College.

    "Overnight, you would have an institution that could stand on its own," said Sullivan, who told Genshaft about his plan during a meeting last week.

    Since she became president three months ago, Genshaft has spent much of her time trying to prevent the dismemberment of USF's regional system.

    She has warned against any predatory moves on New College, the nationally-recognized honors program located on USF's Sarasota campus. She has promised greater autonomy to the St. Petersburg branch, including more control over tenure, promotion and budgeting decisions.

    On Wednesday, she gave her first "State of the University" address, a speech that included an offer to provide more classroom space in Sarasota through the purchase of a new site for the regional campus.

    In an interview after her speech, Genshaft said she hopes Sullivan and McKay still have open minds about "what's best for students."

    "A lot of what they are unhappy about happened in the past, and I can't change that," she said. "If they give us the chance, we'll give them the programs they want."

    The lawmakers are offering no assurances.

    McKay said Genshaft seems like a "very nice lady" and says it isn't her fault she took over USF just as dissatisfaction with the branch operations was peaking.

    But both he and Sullivan will be out of the Legislature in two years because of term limits. They said they intend to start fixing the problems in the branches during the next session, which begins in March.

    McKay denied persistent rumors that he supports shifting control over New College to Florida State University, his alma mater.

    "It has never been my desire to see any part of New College or USF transferred to Florida State," he said.

    But he made it clear that USF's Sarasota-Manatee campus, which offers junior, senior and graduate-level courses to 1,600 students, is now in play.

    "When you talk to employers in the community, they tell you that USF does not offer the courses they need to find employees," McKay said. He said USF should consider shifting money it spends on research to its branches, or accept the fact that it can't be all things to all students.

    Perhaps the biggest sticking point for the two senators is enrollment; neither believes USF will ever grow its branches to levels that would satisfy local communities.

    Enrollment projections released last week show that both campuses are expected to grow substantially during the next five years. The current enrollment at the St. Petersburg campus is 3,500.

    Sullivan says the projected growth is not nearly enough, especially for the St. Petersburg campus, which draws from the state's most densely populated county.

    "Pinellas County has enough people and enough demand to more than justify a major teaching institution," he said.

    Sullivan's idea for a new tier of schools is not new. It was proposed a few years ago when higher education officials were looking for ways to deal with an anticipated surge in college enrollment, which is now happening.

    But new schools were generally viewed as too expensive.

    Sullivan, who chairs the Senate's budget subcommittee on education, said they don't have to be.

    He said new institutions could be created by combining branch campuses with community colleges, or by allowing community colleges, which only accept freshmen and sophomores, to go to four years.

    Sullivan noted that many community colleges have been steadily losing enrollment in recent years. One reason is the introduction of scholarship programs such as Bright Futures, which has made universities more affordable to students. But he said it's also because Florida universities are accepting more freshmen.

    "Another tier of universities can be done," Sullivan said. "There are a lot of ways to get to heaven."

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