Above photo: At Friday’s town hall Jay Sokolovsky, a USF St. Petersburg anthropology professor, speculated a correlation between Regional Chancellor Sophia Wisniewska’s ousting and House Bill 423. Emily Wunderlich | The Crow’s Nest
By Jeffrey Waitkevich, Emily Wunderlich and Whitney Elfstrom
The Senate champion of a bill that would strip the St. Petersburg campus of its independent accreditation sees USF Tampa, Florida State University, the University of Florida and St. Petersburg College as schools with “vision.”
USF St. Petersburg? Not so much.
In a telephone interview with The Crow’s Nest on Friday, Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said he has long regarded the St. Petersburg campus as a school without a vision, which will come as a surprise to faculty and administrators who have a 28-page strategic plan called Vision 20/20.
“I’ve expressed concerns for the last eight years that the leadership team could not clearly define for me the vision of the campus,” Brandes said.
The senator also brushed off criticism that the proposal to consolidate the St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee campuses under the control of Tampa was sprung without notice and buried in the last two pages of a 52-page bill.
He said it did not matter whether the section on consolidation was “at the end or the beginning” of the lengthy bill and that he expected Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, the principal House sponsor, to inform the St. Petersburg community.
“I think it’s going through the course that every single other bill goes through,” Brandes said. “I guess the question is, how is this proposal different from any other proposal (in) the Legislature?”
He also said that when he alerted USF system President Judy Genshaft in late October that legislators were mulling over the proposal, the conversation lasted only 15 minutes. She was “absolutely shocked,” he said.
On the same day that Brandes predicted that the proposed consolidation of the three campuses will be enacted, three of his legislative colleagues were at a town hall meeting in St. Petersburg, where opposition to the proposal has grown from a grumble to a roar.
Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, and Reps. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, and Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, got an earful from 18 people who praised the St. Petersburg campus as a community treasure and called for the legislation to be rejected or at least postponed until it can be thoroughly studied.
“There is nothing positive in this,” said Robert Ryan Carter of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, which has joined Mayor Rick Kriseman, the St. Petersburg City Council, the Pinellas County Commission, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, the St. Petersburg NAACP and other community groups in calling for a delay and further study.
The proposal is “not going to give (USF St. Petersburg) more money, it’s not going to give them more power,” said Carter. “It’s going to give Tampa the power, it’s going to give Tampa the money, and it’s going to remove any positive from our local programs.”
Other speakers at the town hall meeting alluded to St. Petersburg’s distrust of Genshaft, who has changed the leadership of the campus six times in 18 years.
The last change came in September, when Genshaft abruptly ousted Regional Chancellor Sophia Wisniewska.
“I regard this (legislative proposal) as part of the continuation of the firing of heads of our campus who push (growth) forward,” said anthropology professor Jay Sokolovsky.
“Certainly Bill Heller was fired (in 2002) because of his attempt to do that, and I think we now know that the president knew about this (legislative) possibility in October,” Sokolovsky said. “I see this as part of the effort to push this forward by first firing Sophia and then moving ahead with a weakened campus to do that.”
Former City Council member Karl Nurse, a longtime supporter of the St. Petersburg campus, noted that he had a front row seat when the popular Heller, who had headed the campus for a decade, was demoted to professor.
Nurse said the campus’ continuing efforts to grow cause an underlying struggle with Tampa.
Peters, a maverick Republican in Tallahassee, questioned why the bill was brought to Pinellas County’s attention less than a month ago. She said she doesn’t want the campus to become “the redheaded stepchild” of Tampa again.
Rouson assured the crowd that he and Diamond would come up with a “plan of action” to fight for the campus in Tallahassee.
“By your presence here today you certainly indicate that you’re supportive of a pause, a delay, a study and coming to an understanding of a full implication of what consolidation means,” Rouson said.
Brandes’ assertion that USF St. Petersburg lacks “vision” is sure to rankle many on the campus who spent months developing the “Vision 20/20” strategic plan.
The plan, which lays out the university’s core values and “bold goals,” begins with Wisniewska’s assertion that the campus’ vision “focuses our resources to have a powerful impact in Pinellas County and beyond” and “to move forward and build on the vision of making USFSP one of the best public institutions in the region.”
The university also has a 10-year master plan for growth that was approved by the USF system Board of Trustees in December 2015.
But Brandes said that merely wanting to grow a regional campus is not a vision but a goal.
“Everybody’s going to be hired to grow the institution,” he said.
When asked to define an ideal vision for a university, he declined, saying it’s not his job “to come up with an overall vision for an individual campus” but to recognize that it exists.
He said USF Tampa has a vision – to become a pre-eminent state university – and so do the state’s criminal justice and transportation systems, two areas in which he specializes as a senator.
Brandes also said he is concerned that USF St. Petersburg lacks what he called “a champion.” He wondered if the campus could name a champion other than interim Regional Chancellor Martin Tadlock, who got the job after Wisniewska was ousted.
Letter from students
As the debate on consolidation continued, student body president David Thompson, senate president Emilie Morris and chief justice Richard Marini wrote a letter to Sprowls and Brandes outlining 10 student concerns about the proposal to put St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee under Tampa’s control.
Some concerns include maintaining small class sizes and a low faculty-to-student ratio, the continuation of campus-specific programs and maintaining focus on diversity and inclusivity.
“It is our intent that you all will take these concerns to heart and use them to guide your decisions in the coming weeks,” the letter says.
The letter adds that it is “no secret that there has been a history of animosity and mistrust between members of the campus in St. Petersburg and administration in Tampa.”
Jonathan M. Ellen, the president, CEO and physician-in-chief of the nearby John’s Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, cited those concerns in a letter to Sprowls, the House sponsor of the legislation.
But Ellen broke with the prevailing sentiment in St. Petersburg to support consolidated accreditation, calling it “essential to St. Petersburg, the region and my institution … that USF St. Petersburg leverage this opportunity to become a pre-eminent research campus as well” as Tampa.
All Children’s has been an educational affiliate of the Morsani College of Medicine at USF Tampa for 40 years. Pediatric residents train there and so do residents and fellows in adult surgical specialties.
At the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, however, leaders wrote to Sprowls to say that “a longer lead time to explore the value of preeminence and address additional considerations would be most beneficial given the significance of the proposed change.”
The partnership, a five-decade ally of USF St. Petersburg, recommended amendments to the bill and “a commitment to transparency and stakeholder engagement” in the transition to a consolidated system.
Meanwhile, in an editorial Sunday, the Tampa Bay Times called on the legislative sponsors to “add guarantees the St. Petersburg campus will be enhanced and treated fairly.”
Sprowls “makes a reasonable argument for merging USF campuses, but his failure to sell the concept before he quietly rolled it out last month was a mistake,” the Times said. “So was Genshaft’s initial lack of candor and quick shift from neutrality to enthusiastic support.”
Ending St. Petersburg’s separate accreditation to create a three-campus system entitled to extra funding as a pre-eminent state university “may have merit,” the Times said, “but it will not be good for anyone if this is viewed as a hostile takeover.”
Full Letter from Student Government
Dear Representative Sprowls and Senator Brandes,
As Student Government Leaders at USFSP it is our responsibility to represent the Student Body in the most effective way possible. We would first like to communicate our appreciation for the continued inclusion of student input in this process. However, it is important to note that these discussions should have occurred at the outset of any such proposal and not after.
Over the past several weeks, we have worked diligently to hear the concerns of our fellow students. We represent a Student Body that is concerned, apprehensive, and confused as to what the accreditation consolidation of the USF System means for the future of this campus. Our appreciation goes to each of you, and to Chairman Lamb, for hearing the concerns of the Student Body and discussing many of the items of concern as it pertains to the academic priorities of the student population at USFSP. That being said, academics don’t make a university but the people within it. Even more important are the decisions they are empowered to make. Over the past 12+ years this institution has grown as a place known for its commitment to the community and as place where students can partake in experiential learning opportunities.
It is no secret that there has been a history of animosity and mistrust between members of the campus in St. Petersburg and administration in Tampa. As we stand at crossroads about the future of USF System each of you has the opportunity to make a commitment to growing and expanding this institution. USFSP has the potential to be a unique but equally shining jewel in the crown of the Tampa Bay Region. In the lines below our Student Government has outlined in duality a number of legislative priorities and items of concerns for the transition task force that are vital to not only to the culture of USFSP but serve as a benefit to the entire USF System. It is our intent that you will take these concerns to heart and use them to guide your decisions in the coming weeks.
- We request that the Campus Board be retained in its current authority.
- The current structure of the Campus Board be expanded to include a student representative with voting rights
- Student Representation from the St. Petersburg Campus be included in the Transition Task Force that will make recommendations for the future of the USF System.
- Leadership in the St. Petersburg Campus must be empowered to honor and continue to make commitments to sustainability (e.g. Climate Action Plan).
Items of Concern
- A continued commitment to small class sizes and a low faculty to student ratio on the St. Petersburg Campus.
- Local empowerment to continue campus specific programs, like the Honors College and Compass FYE.
- Student Government authority to finance and support clubs and organizations, as well CITF, SGEF, and student fees based out of the St. Petersburg.
- Continued development of the physical aspects of our campus with investment in new capital projects and completion of existing ones.
- Financial and Staff support for the presence of Fraternity and Sorority Life, Intercollegiate Athletics, and an Office of Research and Innovation based out of St. Petersburg.
- A diverse and inclusive Student Body should remain at the forefront of our mission.
We believe that all current parties are working in what they believe is the best interest of the students at USFSP. Moving forward it should be clear that if there is any suggestion or inclination that this consolidation will be used to hamper the progress of USFSP or hinder student success we will not only vocalize our opposition but use the powers vested in us by the State of Florida to actively oppose this legislation.
Thank you for your continued leadership on our campuses and in the community. We look forward to our continued involvement in these discussions.
David D. Thompson Emilie Morris Richard Marini
Student Body President Senate President Chief Justice