Tucked away in a higher education bill moving through the Florida House is a modification that would phase out separate accreditation at two University of South Florida campuses.
The bill, HB 423, passed through the Post-Secondary Education Subcommittee Wednesday and will go next to a House Appropriations Committee.
The move caught many on the St. Petersburg campus by surprise and left them concerned about the campuses long sought-after freedom.
Dr. V. Mark Durand, who led St. Petersburg’s accreditation team a decade ago, was troubled that faculty, students and staff were not consulted.
“I am concerned about the idea of autonomy, that we’ve been making the argument for years that we can mold USF St. Petersburg into our own identity,” Durand said. “In a model that is run centrally, that is no longer the case.”
When St. Petersburg earned its separate accreditation in 2006, it was considered a milestone for the university.
The campus could control its own finances, create curriculum and hire faculty. Durand fears that by decentralizing everything, it puts the campus’ future in a state of uncertainty.
“Whoever controls the money, controls the future of the university,” he said.
There were also mixed reactions among students at USFSP.
“Some students are very much for keeping our own identity and some students say very clearly we think this change should have happened a while ago,” said David Thompson, USF St. Petersburg student body president.
Thompson said many want to know if this change will impact tuition, structure and social activities on campus, such as homecoming.
"They're asking, 'where is my degree going to come from, am I going to have to retake certain classes, what name is going to be on my degree when I graduate, is tuition going to go up?'" Thompson said.
He and his counterparts from the USF Tampa and Sarasota-Manatee are scheduled to meet with lawmakers in Tallahassee next week, and plan to talk to them about the issue.
The bill is still in its early stages, but it does require university leaders to come up with a plan by January of next year, and put it into effect by June 2020.
Bill sponsor, Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Ft. Myers, told the subcommittee that the change would help USF as it joins the University of Florida and Florida State University as a preeminent university. That's a status earned through meeting a variety of benchmarks in academic performance and other metrics.
USF has reached that level through its Tampa campus, but lawmakers want to make sure that the financial reward that accompanies preeminence gets shared among all three campuses.
“Our concern from a student perspective is we want to ensure that there’s no disincentive for USF to share the resources that preeminence is going to bring to them beyond the borders of the Tampa campus that has earned those preeminence,” Rodrigues said. “We want all students within the USF family to benefit from the preeminence that is coming. We believe a rising tide lifts all boats.”
It's unclear though that USF will still maintain the levels for preeminence and similar performance-based funding when the data for all three campuses is consolidated.
Under the current set-up, each campus has its own leadership, which answers to USF System President Judy Genshaft and the USF Board of Trustees. In addition, the campuses have separate lines in the state budget and have such figures as graduation and retention rates measured on their own.
UF and FSU also have satellite campuses throughout the state, including in the Tampa Bay area. However, those branches are part of their parent school and do not have separate accreditation.
In the past, separate accreditation and branch campuses have led to headaches for USF officials.
Financial problems for New College led the Sarasota school to operate under the USF umbrella from 1975 to 2000 as a separate unit that shared grounds with USF Sarasota-Manatee. That ended in 2001, when New College of Florida was formed as an independent university and USFSM moved to its own campus. USF Sarasota-Manatee received separate accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in 2011.
USF also operated a branch campus in Fort Myers until it closed in 1997 and was replaced by Florida Gulf Coast University.
USF Lakeland opened as a branch campus in 1988 before changing its name in 2008 to USF Polytechnic, with a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. However, state lawmakers, led by then Senator JD Alexander of Lake Wales, pushed for independence for the school.
In 2011, the Florida Board of Governors approved a long-term plan that did that, but Alexander proposed a budget the next year that instead immediately created a new university. That budget also had severe cuts to USF's funds, a move some viewed as Alexander taking revenge on the school for fighting the separation. Those cuts were lowered before the budget was passed by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Rick Scott.
Florida Polytechnic University finally received accreditation in June 2017, about six months after its original deadline.
The higher ed bill also increases Bright Futures merit scholarships and tweaks graduation metrics.
There's also an amendment that requires the Florida Board of Governors to conduct a survey on intellectual diversity in state universities.