Home Accreditation Controversy continues to swirl around HB 423
Controversy continues to swirl around HB 423

Controversy continues to swirl around HB 423


Above photo: student body president David Thompson criticized a front page of The Crow’s Nest, saying “‘Campus in Crisis?’ Does this look like a campus in crisis to you? It certainly doesn’t to me.” He and interim Regional Chancellor Martin Tadlock gave the “State of the Campus” address on Thursday. Jonah Hinebaugh | The Crow’s Nest

By Jeffrey Waitkevich and Whitney Elfstrom

If the St. Petersburg campus is returned to the control of USF Tampa, leaders there promise to invest in engineering, health care and marine science programs in St. Petersburg and deliver what they call “doctoral level education and research activities” here as well.

That commitment came last week in a letter from Brian Lamb, chairman of the USF system Board of Trustees, to two state legislators who are championing a bill that would abolish the separate accreditation of St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee and put them under USF Tampa.

The trustees, who are “very encouraged by the possibilities presented in the consolidation proposal,” will now direct USF leaders to begin a feasibility study and timeline for investing in new programs in St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee, Lamb wrote.

The Lamb letter came as the two legislators and USF system President Judy Genshaft sought to counter mounting opposition to the bill from political and business leaders in Pinellas County and some professors, administrators and retirees on the St. Petersburg campus.

USF St. Petersburg “has no desire to be the Chechnya to the empire in Tampa,” retired government professor Darryl Paulson wrote in a column in the Tampa Bay Times. “We are proud to be part of the USF family, but we have no desire to be dominated by Big Brother.”

As controversy continued to swirl:

**Genshaft assured the St. Petersburg Campus Board, a five-member group of Pinellas residents that helps govern the St. Petersburg campus, that the university system will not go back to operating the way it did before receiving separate accreditation.

“That was stifling, that was not creative, that was not impressive,” she said, promising that the identity of USF St. Petersburg will remain intact.

**The St. Petersburg City Council and two legislators called on the bill’s main champions, Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, to shelve the proposal until its impact can be fully studied. 

**Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, a USF St. Petersburg graduate and third-generation St. Petersburg resident, joined others in warning that consolidation of the three campuses might harm the admission of minority students in St. Petersburg. 

**A Student Government petition opposing consolidation stalled amid a dispute between Student Body President David Thompson and two student senators. 

**A student petition drive opposing consolidation seemed to fizzle, with only 150 signatures. Its sponsor vowed to renew her efforts. 

For 41 years, the then-tiny campus in St. Petersburg was a satellite to the rapidly growing main campus 34 miles away in Tampa.

But after a legislative attempt to sever St. Petersburg from Tampa narrowly failed in 2000, lawmakers and Tampa administrators began giving more authority to St. Petersburg.

That culminated in 2006, when the St. Petersburg campus won separate accreditation – a development that gave the campus a jolt of energy and started a decade of growth in admissions, academic programs and prestige.

In an interview on WUSF Public Media last week, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman joined the chorus of Pinellas leaders calling for a halt in the legislation until its impact can be fully studied.

St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee were for many “largely ignored by Tampa (administrators) and all the resources were funneled into Tampa,” he said.

“We don’t want to go back to being an afterthought,” Kriseman said.    

In his letter last week, Lamb, a banker who became chairman of the USF system Board of Trustees in 2016, sought to offer assurances that the concerns of Kriseman and others will be answered with specific commitments to the St. Petersburg campus.

If the bill becomes law, he wrote, the trustees are “committed to investing in engineering, health care and marine science programs in St. Petersburg. In addition, the BOT (Board of Trustees) commits to delivering doctoral level education and research activities responsive to local needs and market demands.”  

Lamb, who was a point guard on the USF basketball team in the 1990s, did not offer specifics. And university administrators did not have many specifics either.

If the bill passes, university spokeswoman Lara Wade wrote in an email to The Crow’s Nest, “a comprehensive USF system plan will be created which will be completed in 2019 and will address those specific investments.”

A nationally recognized College of Marine Science is on the St. Petersburg campus already, but it is for graduate students and falls under the control of Tampa.

Further investments in marine science in St. Petersburg would “need to be worked out by faculty during the planning phase” if the bill becomes law, interim Regional Chancellor Martin Tadlock said.

And what doctoral-level education and research activities might come to St. Petersburg?

“A doctoral program such as educational leadership or related may serve our county very well,” Tadlock said in an email. “We have several employees in that program who travel to Tampa. Doctoral programs that support people already in public and higher education seem to be needed in this county (Pinellas).”

He added that “a commitment to engineering-related programming and health-related programming and doctoral programs is good to see, because we’ve wanted to provide those in St. Petersburg anyway.”

At a “State of the Campus” presentation on Thursday, student Justine Ortiz challenged Tadlock’s assurances that the proposed consolidation would not damage the St. Petersburg campus’ distinct identity.

“So you say you’re going to preserve USF St. Pete’s identity during this merger,” said Ortiz, a sophomore political science major from Westchester, New York. “How can you be sure of this if you’re not even sure you’ll be in the same job afterwards?”

Tadlock, who became interim chancellor after Regional Chancellor Sophia Wisniewska was ousted by Genshaft in September, replied that he is an at-will employee who works at the pleasure of Genshaft.

Tadlock said he took what he called “12 concerns” to Tallahassee late last month when he, Genshaft and Thompson, the student body president, met with legislators to discuss the consolidation proposal (see concerns below).

“I think [the legislators] viewed it very favorably,” said Tadlock.

The legislative sponsors, Genshaft and Lamb have all stressed that consolidation of the three campuses would mean St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee would get some of the extra state funding that the Tampa campus stands to receive as a so-called pre-eminent state university.

Proponents of the plan say it would become easier for USF students to take classes on any campus and help students earn degrees more quickly and at less cost.

But some faculty in St. Petersburg are uneasy about the potential implications for professors in hiring, promotion and tenure.

One of them is John W. Arthur, a professor of anthropology since 2003.

“My concern is if HB 423 passes, how much autonomy will remain on our campus regarding our curriculum, tenure and promotion, college and department governance,” said Arthur. “My hope is that the details of the bill would reach the campus and county communities before the legislature votes so we have a chance to have our voices heard.”

Dr. Tadlock’s concerns that were presented in Tallahassee last week:

  1. This is not a consolidation with an intent to reduce and eliminate
  2. Students at USF St Petersburg will continue in their existing programs and graduate from USF St Petersburg.
  3. We will retain the name USF St. Petersburg.
  4. Campus leadership will continue, with that leadership reporting to the USF president.
  5. The USF St. Petersburg Campus Board will continue.
  6. USF St. Petersburg will continue to be as accessible as possible for Pinellas County students, and we will build pathways in partnership with Pinellas County schools and St. Pete College to ensure that access.
  7. We will continue existing partnerships and will expand and build upon those as we have been doing.  We will still be St Petersburg’s university.
  8. Student government, faculty senate, and other governance groups will continue as they have been unless we decide to change those at the institutional level.
  9. We will continue to move forward on new initiatives and projects such as the new residential hall facility, remodeling of Davis Hall, the wayfinding project, upgrades to the waterfront, remodeling of existing facilities, securing additional property for expansion, etc.
  10. USF St. Petersburg will still create its own distinctive identity within the USF brand.
  11. The transition team that will be organized to develop a plan for submission to the UFS System Board of Trustees will include balanced representation from all three USF institutions.
  12. Trustee and Campus Board Chair Stephanie Goforth will join me in speaking to groups on campus in Pinellas County about one accreditation, what it means, and how it will affect USF St Petersburg.  This will not be driven by USF Tampa.

The Crow’s Nest Arts and Life editor Anna Bryson contributed to this report.


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