St. Pete residents on USF consolidation: thanks, but no thanks

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click to enlarge State Sen. Darryl Rouson (D-St. Petersburg), addresses an audience that's very opposed to stripping USF St. Pete of its independence. - Dinorah Prevost
Dinorah Prevost
State Sen. Darryl Rouson (D-St. Petersburg), addresses an audience that's very opposed to stripping USF St. Pete of its independence.

To alum Shannon Love, the differences between University of South Florida's Tampa St. Pete campuses are striking.

The former USF St. Pete student, who now volunteers for State Sen. Darryl Rouson (D-St. Petersburg), said she experienced the difference firsthand in the wake of the death of a family member. When she approached her instructor at USF Tampa about the issue, the instructor didn't know her name.

Granted, there were about 100 students in that class.

But in St. Pete, her experience was the opposite. Her instructors, namely Judithanne McLauchlan, a prominent political science professor, knew her name, were attentive and checked in on her even after she was no longer their student.

“St. Pete became my home,” Love said.

That sense of a small campus community is something she thinks may change if USF St. Pete and USF Sarasota-Manatee lose their separate accreditation, which could happen this year.

A recent and controversial Florida House of Representatives bill, HB 423, proposes lumping those campuses together with the Tampa one so they would all be controlled under the same USF umbrella.

Most people you talk to in St. Pete are decidedly against it.

Love was one of about 15 people who voiced their concerns at a town hall meeting held by Rouson. The idea was to gather local opinion on the prospect of USF St. Pete losing its hard-earned separate accreditation. About 40 residents, USF St. Pete alumni as well as current and former faculty and staff attended the town hall on Friday at the Sunshine Center in St. Pete.

Not surprisingly, all voiced their opposition the bill and demanded USF St. Pete stay separate. The campus first won separate accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in 2006.

Since then, USFSP went from a sleepy commuter campus with relatively few degree programs to a bustling academic hub in its own right — complete with a towering residence hall and a state-of-the-art student center that hosts important community events. And all on the booming downtown St. Pete waterfront.

The roster of elected officials who attended included State Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, Pinellas County Commission Chair Ken Welch, State Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena and St. Pete City Councilman Ed Montanari.

“I have read House Bill 423, looked at its senate companion and have some concerns,” Rouson said. “Among them are: will Tampa again be priority? Will USF St. Pete be neglected? How will this improve any trust factor between the campuses? And what effect will this have on admissions of a diverse student population? What effect will it have on the pooling and access of distinguished faculty, on degree programs of distinction and, importantly, on the local community.”

News about the proposal broke on Jan. 16.

State lawmakers snuck the proposal onto the last two pages of the 52-page House Bill 423. Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, is HB 423’s official sponsor, but the main push for the bill is coming from a USF St. Pete alum, Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor.

The bill is quickly making its way to the house floor and only has one more hurdle to pass, the House Education Committee.

Over the past month, Pinellas County lawmakers, St. Pete City Council, USF St. Pete faculty and students and local residents have sounded off loudly about their opposition to ending separate accreditation, which they believe would strip the St. Pete campus of its unique identity and place in the Pinellas community.

“I’m here to speak for the existence of USF St. Pete because I think that’s what is at stake. I think this institution is in jeopardy of losing everything that it’s gained,” said Michael Killenberg, an emeritus professor and the founding director of the campus’s Department of Journalism and Media Studies. “I just see so much more innovation, enterprise, community spirit at this campus (than at Tampa).”

Part of what makes the campus special, advocates said, is that smaller classes are the norm, not the exception, even for core curriculum classes.

“The experience of speaking to faculty members over there, the administration at USF Tampa simply does not compare to the people and the faculty we have at St. Pete. At every turn throughout our history as a county, Tampa has taken things from us,” said Robert “Ryan” Carter, whose family members have attended both campuses. “There is no reason why this is a positive move for us to remove accreditation from USF St. Pete.”

Consolidation wouldn’t give USF St. Pete more money or power, but instead centralize more of it in Tampa, Carter argued.

If the three USF campuses were consolidated, USF would receive the “preeminent university” title, designed by Florida legislators to drum up brand name prestige for the state’s top universities. Florida State and the University of Florida are currently the only universities with preeminence. That title would bring millions of dollars of much-desired bonus funding to USF. As a result, USF St. Pete and Sarasota-Manatee may receive greater resources from Tampa but more money, additional degree programs and resources aren’t guaranteed.

Henry Towery, a former Tampa faculty member who also taught business classes in St. Pete, spoke on the neglect the St. Pete campus experienced from Tampa from its inception in 1965 until its accreditation in 2006.

“The campus and the progress here in St. Petersburg was held back because it enabled the Tampa campus to grow faster. They curtailed programs, they reduced programs, they refused to fund faculty for the programs that were essential in this area. As a result of that, the money could stay in Tampa,” Towery said.

To many people in the room, especially veteran St. Pete faculty, the bill is also another Tampa maneuver to tighten the reins on St. Pete’s partial autonomy afforded by its accreditation.

Jay Sokolovsky, a longtime USF St. Pete anthropology professor, offered a stinging assessment of what may be to come for the campus, starting with the abrupt firing of its regional chancellor Sophia Wisniewska late last year.

“Just think about those words emblazoned in the rationale (of consolidation): consolidation and efficiency. You know when you hear that that means that the units that are the smallest will get dramatically cut and the larger systems grow and will survive. I regard this as an incredible affront. I see this as part of the effort to push (Tampa’s agenda) forward by first firing Sophia and then moving ahead with a weakened campus to repeat the...mistakes of the past.”

The two campuses have long had a notably rocky history as St. Pete fought for increased autonomy from Tampa. Tampa currently has oversight over the St. Pete campus in areas such as the hiring of its regional chancellor, the campus’s leader.

Under the 17-year tenure of current USF president Judy Genshaft, six of the St Pete’s regional chancellors have been removed, the most recent being Wisniewska, who was fired in last September for her handling of the campus’s Hurricane Irma evacuations.

At a USF St. Pete campus board meeting on Feb. 1, Genshaft admitted that she knew about the “notion of consolidation” of the three USF campuses in last October, long before the St. Pete community learned about it last month, The Crow’s Nest, USF St. Pete’s campus newspaper, reported.

Together, Rouson and Diamond vowed to take the audience’s comments to Tallahassee.

“I’m troubled by the fact this bill was presented without us first working through, talking and listening to all the issues that are obviously indicated with a decision of this magnitude and my hope is that we can start that process today and then hopefully Senator Rouson and I can your comments back to Tallahassee on Monday,” Diamond said.

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