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Bullish on USF -- the local one

The campus has added buildings and courses of study. It's plotting bigger moves. And in the next few years, it will see a lot more students. A hidden jewel is finally getting a chance to shine.

By LENNIE BENNETT

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 17, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- At last.

After more than four decades of striving, this campus of the University of South Florida, once a poor relation begging for crumbs from the Tampa-based institution, is booming and blooming. Political pressure has brought millions of dollars to the campus and, in turn, new buildings and an expanded curriculum.

The Children's Research Institute, a partnership with All Children's Hospital, opened this year. Soon to follow is the Florida Center for Teachers. The U.S. Geological Center plans to add a third building within three years. The prestigious Department of Marine Science has been elevated to college status, and its head, Peter Betzer, is now acting dean.

Campus Executive Officer and Vice President Bill Heller has, for the first time, a spot on the Tampa-based Executive Council, which makes major budget decisions for the university.

In the next few years, the campus will see more students. A lot more. The first full-fledged freshman class in more than three decades enrolled this fall. It is small, just 143, but Heller said the goal is to increase student enrollment by 10 percent per year, with 5,600 by 2006. The focus is on attracting freshmen who will stay four years to earn degrees in business, education and arts and sciences. A full-time recruiter, the campus' first, has been hired to aggressively recruit high school students.

Housing for them, another first for the campus, is a priority. No sites are on a master plan, which is being revised from its 1990 version and is subject to legislative approval. Potential locations are existing buildings such as the Fountain Inn and Bayboro Tower, which would be purchased and renovated, said campus master planner Jim Grant.

New construction for classrooms, offices and a parking deck has been penciled in. Heller and Grant foresee a student services center for those who will be on campus 24 hours a day.

To create what Heller calls "that campus thing," some streets and avenues leading into the property will be narrowed. Internally, some will be closed off in spots to create a parklike central core.

The plan would complete the build-out of the current 46 acres for an estimated $100-million.

With these additions and the nearby amenities of movie theaters, restaurants, waterfront parks, museums and shopping, USF-St. Petersburg could become the campus of choice for undergraduates applying to the university system, local officials believe.

What a change from 1992, when Heller was named dean of a campus that was virtually empty during the day, alive only in the evenings when part-time students in their 30s, many working full time and with families, came for a hunt-and-peck course load. Those demographics are shifting as the campus evolves into a four-year institution.

"With the push in Tampa for doctorate students and the focus on research and graduate programs, this campus is the one meant to be growing at the undergraduate level," said Deborah Kurelik, coordinator of university relations at the St. Petersburg campus.

Perhaps most significant is the promise of autonomy, granted when the threat of secession from the USF network loomed, which will give USF-St. Petersburg officials freedom in major budget, faculty, curriculum and student admissions issues.

Regionalism in higher education seems to be getting its due.

The politics of location and growth

Like many institutions in the Tampa Bay area, the University of South Florida was born of contention.

When a new, four-year state university was proposed in the early 1950s, a tug-of-war began. Some wanted to put it on Tampa Bay waterfront property near the Courtney Campbell Causeway, and some favored the former Henderson Airfield site in north Tampa. St. Petersburg officials, endorsing the waterfront location for its accessibility to Pinellas County, offered the Maritime School in downtown Bayboro Harbor as a temporary location for the university, to evolve into a satellite campus. In what was considered a highly partisan decision in 1956, they were outmaneuvered, and construction began inland in north Tampa.

Two years later, those same rebuffed city fathers landed the private, four-year Forida Presbyterian College, now Eckerd College. Classes were held in the Maritime building while a permanent campus overlooking Boca Ciega Bay was begun. The University of South Florida rose on a remote plot in Tampa, a distant presence.

USF came to St. Petersburg in 1965 in large part because the growing Tampa campus needed a spillover facility for freshmen. University leaders hoped the move would placate disgruntled Pinellas County officials and residents. At a ceremony on July 1, 1965, then-USF president John S. Allen opened the Bay Campus on the once-spurned Maritime barracks built in 1941. He said to the assembled crowd, "The entire resources of the University of South Florida are behind the Bay Campus."

Certified public accountant Barbara Johnson began attending classes there in 1968.

"It really was a stepchild," she said. "There was just that one building. No student parking. The professors mostly came from Tampa. Some were good, but many were just awful. Most everything you needed you had to go to Tampa for, to buy books, to get a counselor's approval for your schedule. I had to drive to Tampa for a lot of classes because so little was offered here. It was my opinion that was deliberate."

Still, by 1975 enrollment had grown from 700 to about 1,700, with more turned away because of limited resources. After much public debate, the St. Petersburg City Council voted to purchase, in partnership with private businesses, 35 acres in the Bayboro area over 20 years for an expansion that would cost an estimated $30-million.

Phase I, completed in 1981, consisted of two two-story buildings near the Maritime building at a cost of about $8-million. They housed classrooms, student services and the 82,000-volume Nelson Poynter Memorial Library, named for the St. Petersburg Times publisher, a longtime booster of the campus. (Ironically, Poynter suffered a stroke on June 15, 1978, dying just hours after he participated in the buildings' groundbreaking.)

A third building was completed in 1984 for more classrooms, offices, a cafeteria and a bookstore.

Many considered the additions tokenism. While enrollment grew to 2,700, the number of full-time faculty members increased only by three, from 47 to 50. The curriculum catered mostly to juniors transferring from feeder schools such as St. Petersburg Junior College. (Freshman and sophomore classes were discontinued for the most part in 1968.) Many basic courses, such as foreign languages, were not offered. Locally generated fees were put into a fund in Tampa, outraging St. Petersburg students who thought they should be spent on new construction on this side of Tampa Bay. The emerging star of the campus was the Marine Science Center, but because it was administered directly from the Tampa campus, with no requirement to report to Bay Campus officials, it was regarded with some resentment.

A sweeping master plan released in 1985 unveiled a $100-million expansion of the campus, to be completed in 2000. Officials made good, to a degree, on their word to add facilities, breaking ground on a recreation and activities center in 1986. In 1988, the prestigious U.S. Geological Survey announced that it was leasing the nearby Studebaker building to set up a coastal study program in conjunction with the Marine Science Center.

The real issue was how to deal with a regional campus. University officials were reluctant to relinquish any control. The sense in Tampa was that research facilities and graduate programs should be concentrated on the main campus, which would attract top students and faculty. A regional campus, without them, could never aspire to that level of excellence.

"I have come to the conclusion that our (St. Petersburg) campus is viewed as a threat by the Tampa campus of the University of South Florida," Regis Factor, an associate professor of political science, wrote in a guest editorial.

"There seems to be an almost inherent distrust or condescension toward regional campuses," historian and USF professor Ray Arsenault said in an interview.

In 1987, St. Petersburg campus dean Lowell Davis announced at a Board of Regents meeting that "We cannot produce educated graduates with such a paucity of humanities training. We need courses in religious studies, classics, languages." He also said the campus had "drastic needs" in education courses, and that it was suffering from a "poverty" of applied science courses.

USF provost Gregory O'Brien said Davis' points were "very legitimate."

Taking over a 'stagnant' place

Bill Heller was named dean of the St. Petersburg campus in 1992. He succeeded Davis, who died unexpectedly in 1989, days before he was to present his vision for USF-St. Petersburg and call for more autonomy.

Heller took over a campus that he described as "stagnant."

"In '92, when I was being shown around," Heller said, "I could never figure out why this wasn't a four-year campus. There were so many possibilities."

Instead, the average age of the student population, which numbered more than 3,000, was 32. Only junior, senior and graduate-level classes were offered, mostly in the evening.

The grand $100-million plan of 1987 was stalled.

Heller, a personable man, capitalized on the good will in the community and began forging partnerships with local businesses and agencies. He introduced programs designed to attract a more diverse population to the campus. He responded to the particular needs of local students, such as single mothers who needed help finding affordable care for their children, forming a partnership with YWCA that eventually became the USF/YWCA Family Village with a Child Development Center. But USF president Frank Borkowski, a controversial figure, was preoccupied with problems that flared on the Tampa campus. The St. Petersburg campus did not seem to be a priority. He resigned under pressure.

Betty Castor was appointed president in 1995. Politically savvy, Castor better recognized the need to deal with long-simmering resentments in St. Petersburg that did not abate even as the campus grew more beautiful. Two historic houses, once owned by pioneers John C. Williams and Perry Snell, had been moved onto the property in 1993 and 1995. The Knight Oceanographic Research Building and the a new Nelson Poynter Memorial Library (the orginal building refitted renamed Bayboro Hall) were open by 1996, gleaming white brackets for the water side of the campus.

Yet, Arsenault said in a 1997 interview, "Do you know there is not a single mathematician on this campus?"

Inching toward independence

Near the end of 1997, then-state Rep. Margo Fischer gave public voice to an idea that had been in private discussion for months: Make the St. Petersburg campus an independent four-year university. It had an enrollment of about 3,000, still mostly night students, but could accommodate up to 10,000 if more lower-level courses were offered during the day.

"We have all these kids who need a place to go to college," she said, "and a beautiful university that's sitting there underutilized."

While not endorsing the breakaway plan, Heller said that adding freshmen and sophomore courses was "long overdue."

Castor favored limited undergraduate classes but said, "I think it would be somewhat unusual to have two four-year institutions in such close proximity."

The big push in '99

For many years, the state's public colleges and universities have operated under guidelines designed to avoid competition. In Pinellas County, for example, students were expected to attend SPJC for their first two years, then matriculate to USF-St. Petersburg for their junior and senior years. To depart from the formula, a school needs the permission of the state Board of Education, which consists of the governor and Cabinet.

In 1999, Pinellas County civic and political leaders did not let that legality deter their lobby for a full, four-year program and more autonomy.

State Sen. Don Sullivan introduced a bill during the 1999 legislative session that would end St. Petersburg's affiliation with USF, creating an independent university. It failed, barely, and was a wake-up call to the State Board of Regents and USF officials in Tampa.

"He had a major role in changing things," said Heller.

Betty Castor, who had announced her resignation, worked in her final weeks as president on getting Gov. Jeb Bush and the Cabinet -- the Board of Education -- to approve a plan to expand USF's course offerings for freshmen and sophomores on the St. Petersburg campus. They did, unanimously.

Judy Genshaft, USF's new president, has held out olive branches to Sen. Sullivan and St. Petersburg officials, along with a plan that would give USF-St. Petersburg what it has long craved: "An independent campus," she said.

Sullivan has said he still will fight for an independent university in St. Petersburg.

Heller believes now "that likely won't happen."

"She (Genshaft) values the regional campus," Heller said. "We've been able to build strong community support for autonomy but staying a part of the university."

Heller said local autonomy will have four components: "Generating our own budget requests; responsibility for making recommendations to recruit, promote and tenure our faculty; responsibility for our curriculum, and the authority to admit students, not using lower standards but sometimes different standards for individual needs," he said.

Mike Smith, a 20-year-old junior majoring in finance, fits the profile the campus is trying to attract. He began college after high school graduation and is full time.

"I like this campus so much more than Tampa," he said. "There are different things to do here, like the sailing." (A fleet of sailboats of all sizes, part of the campus sailing center, is moored in the harbor.)

He took his lower division classes at SPJC, not having the option, two years ago, of a four-year degree at the St. Petersburg campus. Now he will.

"Pinellas County students have the best of all worlds," said Deborah Kurelik, the public relations official, "with a lot of options. They can go to an excellent junior college here for a terminal degree, or move on to USF. If they want a four-year experience, they have Eckerd or here."

At 11 a.m. on a weekday, a visitor to the campus will see clusters of students sitting on the greensward overlooking the harbor behind the library. Inside, more read newspapers or sit at computer stations. Two young women giggle together as they exit their car and walk, with books, toward a classroom building.

It still lacks the bustle of Eckerd College or SPJC. But, said Cheryl Brull, a senior majoring in management information systems, "It's busier now" than four years ago, when she enrolled after completing lower-level classes at SPJC. "I've had to go to Tampa for a few courses, but less and less."

Barbara Johnson, the CPA who was among the first to attend classes in the 1960s in the shabby Maritime building, said her daughter is a student on this bigger campus. "It's very different now," Mrs. Johnson said. "So much better."

"We're beefing up the selection in breadth and depth," said Kurelik, "so we'll be offering more classes more often."

The University of South Florida-St. Petersburg, born of political division, and hampered by it, now will grow because of it.

"I believe the attention the campus has gotten was driven by politics," said Heller. "But I really believe that the planning is being driven by what the university ought to be using its regional campuses for. Students will choose to come here not just because of convenience but because of the amenities of the campus and the community. A beautiful waterfront. Things to do, all here."

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