School feels pain with gain of independence
By BARRY KLEIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 8, 2000
FORT MYERS -- William Merwin describes Florida Gulf Coast University, the school he has run for the last year, as a kind of innocent toddler.
It badly wants to get bigger, he says, but isn't quite ready to let go of the furniture.
"For at least the next several years, we're going to need a lot of care and support," says the president of Florida's newest university, which opened its doors here three years ago.
That's why Merwin recently hired a specialist to goose enrollment; though funded for 3,000 full-time students, FGCU has been able to attract barely half that number so far.
The school's growing pains have received little attention in Pinellas County, where the higher education focus has been on the fight over the future of the University of South Florida's St. Petersburg campus.
But FGCU also began life as a distant branch of USF. Officials familiar with both schools say FGCU's struggles offer useful lessons for those who think the St. Petersburg campus should be made independent.
"One thing you can count on is that a new university will be very different from what you have now," says Roy McTarnaghan, FGCU's first president.
A St. Petersburg university, for example, should expect to replace much of its faculty and all of its alumni. Gone would be the academic credibility generated by an affiliation with USF.
Gone, too, would be accreditation, at least in the short term. That means the school's first students would be taking a significant gamble on the value of their degree.
But the FGCU experience also shows there is much to gain from independence.
Even as it fights for enrollment, FGCU is educating twice as many students as it did when it was a regional campus of USF. And within 10 years, Merwin predicts, the university will be so full its biggest problem will be securing space for expansion.
"From a quality-of-life standpoint, Gulf Coast has been a huge improvement, especially in attracting new businesses to the area," says Charles Edwards, a Fort Myers resident who was chairman of the state Board of Regents when planning for the new university began.
"The branch campus arrangement just wasn't viable," he says. "The truth is, it was kind of a joke."
Best of all worlds
While there are obvious parallels between what happened at FGCU and what some hope will happen in St. Petersburg, officials at both institutions say comparisons can be tricky.
Pinellas, for example, has the larger population base -- about 1-million residents compared to 800,000 in the five-county area served by FGCU. And the St. Petersburg campus already exists, with room for up to 10,000 students. FGCU is building itself from the ground up -- an expensive process that won't be complete for several years.
But the most important difference may be the least tangible: Unlike in Fort Myers, where the issue was framed as independence versus a highly unsatisfactory status quo, the dynamic in St. Petersburg is considerably more complicated.
USF President Judy Genshaft recently offered to give the St. Petersburg campus greater control over tenure, promotion and budgeting decisions. She has promised to expand course offerings and increase the number of degree programs.
Genshaft says those changes offer Pinellas students the "best of all worlds." They also give her a shot at fending off state Sen. Don Sullivan, a local Republican who is intent on dismembering USF's regional system.
During the last legislative session, Sullivan nearly succeeded in pushing through a bill that would have made the St. Petersburg campus independent. He still managed to secure funding for a study to determine the best way to meet higher education needs in Pinellas and four other Florida counties -- a move many consider a precursor for another legislative assault.
Sullivan says his only concern is providing students with the best access to a college diploma. He suggested last week that the best solution for Pinellas may be a merger of St. Petersburg Junior College with the USF campus.
USF officials expect the study to say exactly that when it is released sometime before the end of the year.
William Proctor, director of the Post Secondary Education Planning Commission, which is putting it together, says the study will be objective.
"It may say branches are better, but it may not," says Proctor, whose board advises the governor, Legislature and state Cabinet. "The question we need to answer is: What's best for students?"
An anxious period
That was an easy question in Fort Myers, where even USF agreed the situation was untenable.
"Before Gulf Coast opened, it was almost impossible for a student to complete a degree program without leaving the area," says McTarnaghan.
"The citizens of this community were definitely not happy," says Kenneth Walker, president of nearby Edison Community College, which shared facilities with the USF branch. "There just weren't enough opportunities."
But creating those opportunities has been an expensive proposition.
As part of its fight to keep the St. Petersburg campus under its umbrella, USF officials did some cost comparisons last year. They determined that taxpayers are spending about $21,000 to educate each full-time student at FGCU, but only $13,000 in St. Petersburg.
Some of the difference comes from USF's ability to subsidize administrative costs at the St. Petersburg campus. More of it comes from FGCU's enrollment problems; from the time it opened, the university has received considerably more money than it deserves under state formulas, which are heavily weighted toward enrollment.
Merwin knows that subsidy could end soon, especially after the Board of Regents goes out of business -- a change expected in 2003. That's why he is pushing to increase enrollment now.
Universities with no alumni and little history, he says, may not fare well if the Legislature assumes greater control over funding and program decisions.
Cost of independence
But not all the costs of independence can be measured in dollars and cents.
FGCU had to build its faculty almost from scratch. Most of the USF professors working at the Fort Myers branch declined an invitation to join the new school.
Bill Heller, dean of the St. Petersburg campus, says most of his professors would make the same choice.
"If this campus becomes independent, we would lose an awful lot of good people," he says. "Some would be very difficult to replace. It's hard to recruit top professors to a new university."
Merwin says it isn't that hard; FGCU received thousands of applications for the 115 openings in its teaching ranks.
The more difficult task, he says, is building credibility.
That requires accreditation, an arduous process that FGCU completed last year. Administrators here are extremely proud that they secured accreditation just 22 months after opening. The process typically takes three to four years.
"It's a very anxious period for your students," says McTarnaghan, who notes that many graduate and professional schools won't consider applicants from unaccredited institutions.
"I probably wouldn't send my children to a school that was not accredited," Merwin says.
But academic credibility is only one of the requirements for attracting today's students.
Universities must also offer the right classes in sufficient quantity, Merwin says. They must build dormitories and provide a campus social life.
Athletics are a must.
"We're starting golf and tennis teams right now, and we'll hire a basketball coach in the spring," Merwin says. "We'll expect to have a new gym ready by 2002."
Critics of the independence push in St. Petersburg say it makes no sense to create a new university if it requires building components already provided by USF.
They advise patience.
USF officials say overall enrollment in St. Petersburg grew by almost 14 percent this fall. They expect that pace to continue for at least the next several years, if only because the Tampa campus has become so crowded that applicants are being actively steered across Tampa Bay.
McTarnaghan says he understands the frustrations in St. Petersburg. But he warns against letting them drive irrevocable decisions.
"If the campus can double or triple its enrollment and still remain part of a research institution," he asks, "why would you even want to go independent?"
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times
local news desks