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USF Wraps Up Consolidation Town Halls

The University of South Florida wrapped up its third and final town hall last week to discuss consolidating the separate accreditations of its three campuses.

The Oct. 2 meeting at USF Sarasota-Manatee included about 40 faculty, students and community members sharing their concerns about the process. Around 150 people attended the town hall.

Dr. Jonathan Ellen serves as the chairman of USF's Consolidation Task Force. He said now that the three meetings are complete, there are some things people at all three USF campuses have in common.

“I think they’re all really concerned about making sure they maintain their identity and that they have some input into the decision making around the resources and around the resources that we make into each community,” said Ellen, who is president of Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital, 

He added the committee will be going over the feedback they’ve received at the meetings before submitting ideas to the USF Board of Trustees.

"The good news is that we really are still in a very fluid part of the process, so we think we'll be able to integrate what we've heard from the town halls into our formal reports that are going to come together that we will then present to the board in February,” he said.

The task force faces a state-mandated deadline to bring the separate accreditations under one umbrella by July 1, 2020.

Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
Like the previous meetings in Tampa and St. Petersburg, a capacity crowd attended the town hall in Sarasota.

The overriding themes at the town hall at USF St. Petersburg on Sept. 11 were about adding more arts to the curriculum and protecting the campus’ science programs, especially the College of Marine Science, which is actually overseen by officials at USF Tampa.

Meanwhile, at USF Sarasota-Manatee, many speakers, including local business leaders in medicine and the aerospace industry, talked about the community's need for the trained workforce that the school provides. Other speakers focused on wanting to protect the College of Hospitality and Tourism Leadership.

Dean Pat Moreo told the task force he wants his college, which is unique to the campus, to keep its autonomy to hire its own faculty and set its curriculum. But he added that students at Tampa and St. Petersburg could also take courses in the program under consolidation.

One issue that's been a topic of discussion long before the town hall, is adding a residence hall at USFSM. The campus does not have an official place for students to live, but has affiliation agreements with nearby properties.

“If this campus wants to grow, it needs the space to do so,” said Michael Klene, the USFSM student body president. He pointed out that while USF Tampa offers almost 231 square feet per student and USFSP provides over 273 square feet per student, USFSM has less than 79 square feet per student.

But while most speakers talked about their hopes for what comes next, former USFSM CEO Laurey Stryker was critical of state lawmakers who passed the law requiring the consolidation.

“This came up in a bill in the middle of last session,” said Stryker, who ran USFSM from 2000 to 2007. “This change was made to do away with our separate accreditation without any input from the community and I think it needs to be re-examined.”

She urged university officials to slow things down and get more answers behind the decision.

“I’ve worked with the legislature for many, many years and there have been a lot of things that have been put in legislation that there’s been community feedback and there is a way to go back and say this is not reasonable,” said Stryker, who still teaches at the campus.

"To put these communities through this kind of ringer and change without answering that question, "Why?" and how will this benefit our students and our community, and I don't see that being asked."

“We’ve always been one USF system, the idea was we were a system with autonomous campuses that were serving their communities,” Styker said, pointing out that people at both USFSM and USFSP put thousands of hours into the effort to attain separate accreditation.

“The consolidation to say that that’s the way to make one USF is not the only way to do it,” she said, adding that November’s midterms elections are an ideal time to push pause on the effort.

“We’ve got so many legislators up (for re-election), we’ve got Bill Galvano (of Sarasota), who is the incoming president of the Senate, I think there’s an opportunity to say, ‘We’ve looked at it, this is what it will mean, you won’t have academic leadership on your campus because of the accreditation bodies.’”

While Styker said she fears that talented faculty will start looking for other jobs due to the uncertainty, she thinks a lack of resources could also lead some teachers to leave USFSM as well.

“Resources are earned by campuses and by a story and by a compelling reason to fund. USF will not be able to manufacture new resources because it’s now a consolidated operation,” Stryker said. “We’ve only shown over the last years that the best way to get support is for the regional campuses to tell their story to their legislators and get funding.”

Other critics included former USF trustee and Manatee County School Board Chair Scott Hopes, who pointed out a number of local organizations, including his board and the local Chamber of Commerce, haven't yet heard from Huron Consulting Group, which was hired by USF to study the consolidation process.

Representatives from other nearby schools, including New College of Florida and the State College of Florida also spoke in defense of USFSM as an important part of the community.

“Here to support a strong upper division partner where students who are place bound by job, family obligations and money on the Suncoast can complete their education and remain here to build a strong local economy with an educated workforce,” Dr. Carol Probstfeld, president of State College of Florida, said in a tweet sent during the meeting.

Mark Schreiner is the assistant news director and intern coordinator for WUSF News.
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