Members of the State University System's Board of Governors said Thursday they were disappointed that Florida's newest university will miss the original deadline for getting accredited, a designation that can affect students' job prospects and ability to receive financial aid.
The administration of Florida Polytechnic University - which was established as a science-centric school by the Legislature in 2012 - said it learned last month that its planned timeline for becoming accredited was unworkable under the policies of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
The university is hoping to get a final decision on its "candidacy" - the first step in accreditation - this June, following a visit by SACS officials last week. Florida Poly then wanted the association to visit again in the fall, in hopes of completing the process at the end of the year. State law calls for the university to be accredited by December.
But SACS informed the university that it couldn't do both site visits in the same calendar year, President Randy Avent said, meaning that the school will have to wait until 2017 to become fully accredited. He noted that the new school was pursuing an aggressive timeline.
Some board members, though, were upset at the change.
"What we found out in February we could have found out two years ago," board Chairman Tom Kuntz said.
Avent acknowledged that, while stressing Poly's unique and speedy way of approaching accreditation.
"But I think part of this is that as you go through this process, which has never been done before, then is when you start figuring out the snags," he said.
Others questioned the consultant who is supposed to be guiding the university through the accreditation process. Board member Norman Tripp said that while he had confidence in Avent, some of the staff members at the university might be to blame.
"I just have to tell you we all sat up here fat and happy thinking that this was going just the way we should, and I for one am disappointed to hear it this way. ... Maybe you ought to go back and look at the people you have working on this to make sure that you're being fully informed and that we're being fully informed," Tripp said.
Accreditation can affect employment prospects and whether students receive some forms of financial aid, though current students at Florida Poly can essentially go to school tuition-free through scholarships meant to help the new school get off the ground.
Avent said relatively few students would be directly affected by the lack of accreditation in the short term. One graduate student who plans to pursue a doctoral degree somewhere else will be able to do so without a master's degree from an accredited college. Two others already have jobs.
Of the three who are looking for jobs, only one appears to be in a financial bind, and Avent said the school was trying to work with her.
The university is looking at pushing its December 2016 graduation ceremonies into January of the following year. If the school is accredited at any point in 2017, the process will cover any student graduated in that year.
Most undergrads at Florida Poly are sophomores, Avent said. Only one is a senior, and a small number are on track to graduate in 2017.
A budget-related bill (HB 5003) sent to Gov. Rick Scott would push back to December 2017 the deadline in law for the university to be accredited. Scott is expected to sign the measure.
Florida Poly was established by the Legislature in 2012 after Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, insisted on writing into law independence for what was then the Lakeland campus of the University of South Florida. The Board of Governors had laid out benchmarks for the campus to achieve in order to become independent.
After lawmakers agreed to Alexander's proposal, then-Chancellor Frank Brogan said the plan would actually create a longer lead-time for the new institution to become independent and accredited - because it could not seek accreditation as part of University of South Florida, as it would under the Board of Governors' roadmap. That would likely take four years, instead of two, Brogan said.
"The good news is, both approaches get to the same destination," he said then.
Earlier this week, Polytechnic's Board of Trustees voted to name the school's campus the John David "JD" Alexander Campus after the former Florida Senate budget chairman.