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Campus crowd puts lawmaker on defensive

Students assail Sen. Don Sullivan's ideas for USF's St. Petersburg campus, which include severing USF ties.

By BARRY KLEIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 25, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- About 20 minutes into Tuesday's town hall meeting, state Sen. Don Sullivan said he was happy nobody had thrown anything at him.

That about sums up the prevailing sentiment inside the packed meeting hall at the University of South Florida's St. Petersburg campus. Hundreds of students and professors listened skeptically as Sullivan explained his ideas for drastically changing their school.

The Pinellas senator said his overriding concern is providing local residents with greater access to a college degree. Of the 50 largest counties in the U.S., he said, Pinellas is the only one without its own public university.

One student asked how it would help anyone to sever the school's connection to USF. Another questioned whether Sullivan has a personal agenda, a charge he staunchly denied.

Kimber Mieras, a USF senior, had a message to deliver: "You said earlier that this is your campus. I want to tell you this is our campus," she said.

Not so, said Sullivan, who in recent years has steered millions of additional state dollars to the St. Petersburg branch for expansion.

"This is a state institution," he said.

Sullivan told the students they have a basic misunderstanding about his intentions.

He hasn't said he is committed to severing the campus from USF and creating an independent institution. That is just one option, he said.

Others include increased autonomy while remaining a part of USF, or a merger of sorts with St. Petersburg Junior College.

"This is not about less," Sullivan said. "This is about more -- more courses, students, dormitories, the whole schmear. " He said the branch will never get what it deserves if it has to keep going to Tampa "on its knees and begging for it."

It's unlikely Sullivan's talk changed many minds, though a number of people thanked him afterwards for speaking to them directly.

The senator said his mind remains open, though he is getting tired of waiting for USF administrators to explain exactly how they intend to provide Pinellas residents the access they deserve.

USF President Judy Genshaft recently proposed giving the St. Petersburg campus greater control over tenure, promotion and budgeting decisions. She offered to expand course offerings and increase the number of degree programs.

Campus officials here also want a dramatic increase in enrollment over the next five years, from the current 3,500 to between 6,000 and 8,000. They estimate that would cost about $9.7-million the first year and $7.6-million a year after that.

Sullivan said he has a lot of questions about Genshaft's plan.

He said it's unclear where any additional money would come from. Would it come from the state? Or would it come out of the Tampa campus budget?

He also wonders how USF can insure that any pledges it makes now will be honored later, especially since the state Board of Regents, which must approve any changes, is scheduled to go out of business in three years.

Bill Heller, the top administrator at the St. Petersburg campus, said the university is finalizing its proposal and expects to present it to the regents at their November meeting in Miami.

Though Sullivan said he is awaiting the results of two studies on higher education access in Florida before determining what legislation he will propose, there is little doubt that this campus, and the USF branch in Sarasota, will be put in play next year.

Sullivan told the students the two campuses are case studies in why Florida ranks near the bottom nationally in producing college graduates.

Unlike many other states, he said, Florida long ago decided to educate its university students in research institutions.

That costs taxpayers about 50 percent more per student, he said, than it would at a college that focuses exclusively on undergraduate education, such as an independent university in St. Petersburg.

"If everyone could drive a Cadillac, everyone would drive a Cadillac," he said. "Right now, we're denying some people the right to even drive a Chevy."

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