Gov. Ron DeSantis, House Speaker Jose Oliva, and University of South Florida President Steven Currall all addressed a controversial university consolidation plan for the first time Thursday.
While neither DeSantis nor Oliva endorsed the move, both like the money-saving aspect of the plan. They're also both open to another merger alternative: the University of South Florida.
Rep. Randy Fine, a Palm Bay Republican who is sponsoring the bill (HB 7087), said Florida could save “tens of millions of dollars” if New College of Florida is merged into Florida State University and Florida Polytechnic University is folded into the University of Florida.
DeSantis told reporters in Tallahassee that he doesn’t know “what FSU’s interest in that is.”
He added that based on location, it would make more sense to have New College merge with USF, rather than Florida State. New College’s Sarasota campus is 57 miles from USF in Tampa and 321 miles from Florida State’s campus in Tallahassee.
“I am open to the University of South Florida as well,” Oliva told reporters Thursday.
The potential of merging New College into another institution has drawn protests from students, faculty and alumni.
But Oliva said the proposal would save money for the state and ensure students can continue to go to a university that would offer them a “benefit.”
“I don’t feel that those students would in any way suffer a loss. Is it a disruption? Without a doubt. But the amount of monies that are being spent on those two institutions are entirely unjustifiable, and it is our duty to look at things like that,” Oliva said.
Florida State officials declined to comment on what the university thinks about the consolidation plan, but New College President Donal O’Shea said Wednesday that FSU leaders told him they oppose the proposed bill.
The University of Florida has not weighed in on the plans.
Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said Wednesday he wants to have a discussion about the mergers, even as university leaders and lawmakers from Sarasota and Manatee counties raise concerns about a lack of data and time to vet the plan.
The governor said he is aware of the concerns but would also like to consider ways to make the state’s higher-education system more efficient.
“At the end of the day, I think we have a lot of good things going on with the universities, but we can’t necessarily be all things to all people, so if there are ways to do it that are more efficient, I am certainly willing to look at it and discuss it,” DeSantis said.
USF President Steven Currall also weighed in on the proposal Thursday, before DeSantis' and Oliva's statements.
“We're watching with great interest, of course, to see whether or not this bill continues through the process,” Currall told WUSF News. “And at the moment, we're just relying on the wisdom of the legislature for what they'll do, but we're watching it very closely and just seeing how it will unfold over the next few weeks.”