Campus may get more power
By LEONORA LaPETER and BARRY KLEIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 22, 2000
ST. PETERSBURG -- A possible compromise in the fight over the University of South Florida's St. Petersburg campus would leave the branch intact but grant it more autonomy in budgeting, hiring and firing and the creation of new programs.
Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, is floating the idea in a bill that has been tweaked by both USF President Judy Genshaft and state Sen. Don Sullivan, who several months ago tried to dismantle the university's regional campus system.
Genshaft was out of the state Thursday and could not be reached for comment, but Kathy Betancourt, USF's associate vice president for government affairs, said Sebesta's bill seemed to mirror what the school already was trying to do.
"It's putting into statute the president's vision for the future of that campus and the community's vision," Betancourt said.
Sullivan, meanwhile, described the proposal as a beginning. The Seminole Republican said he "didn't have any disagreement with it," but also doesn't consider it a finished product.
"I've always said I'm willing to work with the president to try and work this out the best we can," said Sullivan, who has proposed making USF's branches in St. Petersburg and Sarasota part of a new tier of public universities.
"We're in the process of doing that," he said.
The exact nature of Sullivan's intentions has always been a key question in USF's fight to retain control over its branches.
Some have speculated the Pinellas lawmaker is running an elaborate bluff; that he is just trying to keep maximum pressure on USF administrators to ensure they keep their promises of enhancements.
But if this is poker, Sullivan is playing it very tough.
During the last legislative session, he nearly succeeded in pushing through a bill that would have severed the two campuses from USF and made them into new state universities.
He has threatened to try again during the next session, and has commissioned several studies he thinks will prove that branch campuses are not the best way to increase the number of college graduates in the Tampa Bay area. That, he says, is his ultimate goal.
Genshaft, meanwhile, has been working furiously to derail any plan that would dismember USF's regional system.
She has promised to seek greater autonomy for the St. Petersburg branch, including separate accreditation and independent authority over tenure, promotion and budgeting decisions.
Genshaft wants to increase student enrollment from the current 3,500 to 5,900 and has proposed hiring 32 new professors, which would greatly increase the number of complete degree programs that could be offered.
But in a letter to Sullivan this week, she included a not-so-veiled warning.
Many of those changes, she said, are contingent on the generosity of state lawmakers. USF will go forward regardless, she said, but it will be at a slower pace without adequate legislative support.
Sebesta, who has quietly worked on his bill during the past six weeks, said he sees a day when the St. Petersburg campus will have dormitories and 5,000 to 10,000 students. His bill would give the students complete access to all branches of the school and student activities but give the St. Petersburg campus greater autonomy.
Sebesta, who received support for keeping USF intact from the St. Petersburg City Council on Thursday, said he and Sullivan are not that far apart on the future of USF presence in Pinellas County.
"We both want the (campus) to have a great deal more autonomy," he said. "Virtually all of the differences between Sen. Sullivan and I are gone."
But later, in an interview, Sebesta said he doesn't think Sullivan has decided yet whether he will back off from his idea of making the regional campuses independent.
"I'm not speaking for the senator, but I believe if he is satisfied that built into the bill will be sufficient protection to do those things at USF that we both want done, he might have different thoughts about the whole separate university," Sebesta said.
Even those who oppose Sullivan in this fight acknowledge his efforts have forced USF administrators to pay greater attention to the unrealized potential of the St. Petersburg campus, which has been an arm of the university for 35 years.
On Thursday, during an interview with the St. Petersburg Times and other news organizations, Gov. Jeb Bush was asked whether he thinks Florida needs more than 10 public universities.
"Not right now, we probably don't," he said.
- Times staff writer Diane Rado contributed to this report.
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