When the state legislature mandated the consolidation of the University of South Florida’s three campuses in 2018, it was touted as a positive development with plenty of upsides.
Students would have a larger pool of majors to choose from and more services available to support them. Faculty members would have new opportunities for interdisciplinary research collaborations and community partnerships. And the smaller Sarasota-Manatee and St. Petersburg campuses would have access to funding awarded to USF as one of the state’s preeminent research universities, money they would’t have been previously eligible to receive as separately accredited institutions.
However, a number of city and county leaders expressed concerns about what consolidation could mean for the St. Petersburg campus, which has long been a point of pride for the city. It is a major employer that generally pays above the area median income, and a key partner in the Innovation District. Some have credited the city’s downtown revival with a growing number of students who live on campus. Would it continue to be accessible to minority students? Would administrators still have control over their budget? And would it be able to keep its identity without getting lost in the shuffle?
In July 2020 the consolidation went into effect and three months later, in October, many of those questions and concerns are still very much alive for both elected officials and university administrators. Is the theory behind consolidation matching up with the reality? Regional Chancellor Martin Tadlock said “not yet,” but added that it’s still early in the process.
“Higher education turns about at the speed of a cruise ship. It’s slow,” he said during a recent interview with the Catalyst. “We’re not yet anywhere where we plan to be, and that’s a reality.”
That’s not to say Tadlock thinks consolidation is a bad thing. He praised the opportunity for the St. Petersburg campus to be part of a “preeminent, top 25 aspirational university” with the name and brand recognition that USF has built.
“The intent of the legislation as a result of bringing these campuses together was to bring those resources to St. Pete,” he said. “All of that is good and there’s nothing wrong with it.”
What’s important to Tadlock is the consolidation model itself and how it’s developing and being rolled out, and he’s paying close attention to what was promised and what is actually happening.
“The legislation was pretty clear that a branch campus needs to have its own budget and authority over that budget and administration over that budget,” he said. “It needs its own administrative structure which gives it local hiring and firing authority, and it should have its own recognized purpose and distinctive identity from the home campus. Those are all there in legislation because the legislation took the definition of a branch campus and included it.”
How that legislation is being followed has recently been called into question by St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, who has long been critical of the consolidation. In an Oct. 9 letter sent to state Sen. Jeff Brandes, who along with state Rep. Chris Sprowls led the charge for consolidation, Kriseman wrote of his “disappointment in the manner that consolidation is occurring within the University of South Florida” and said that he hoped Brandes could correct “what so many of us feared would occur.”
I’ve asked State Sen. Brandes, who brought the idea of consolidation forward, to hold the @USouthFlorida Board accountable or consider unwinding consolidation altogether. He has said he shares my concerns and will ensure law is followed.
More here ➡️ https://t.co/6HJRK5WXFi
— Rick Kriseman (@Kriseman) October 12, 2020
One of those fears is freshman enrollment numbers, which have continued to plunge over the last four years. According to data reported by the the Crows Nest, a USF St. Petersburg student-run publication, the school welcomed 396 first-time-in-college freshmen to its campus in 2016. That number dropped to just 157 in 2020, with only one Black student in the class.
The Campus Advisory Board, which meets Oct. 22, plans to take up the topics of enrollment and how to attract a more diverse student population.
Another concern is related to finances. Under the legislation, each campus is given the authority to maintain its budget, but there has been talk about consolidating them into one.
“The only reason you do that is if you don’t want people to see what you’re spending on the other two campuses specifically,” Kriseman said in an interview Friday. “That raises eyebrows.”
Kriseman also lamented the dramatic change in the number of people and departments who once reported directly to Tadock and have now shifted to Tampa, including human resources, the Honors College and the Kate Tiedemann College of Business.
“All of those things are a concern. The whole idea here is we want a vibrant successful campus here in St. Petersburg,” he said, noting that university systems across the country have figured out how to balance individual campus independence while still maintaining their overarching affiliation. “I don’t know why we’re struggling so much.”
At least one of Kriseman’s concerns appears to have been taken up by Sprowls and Brandes. In a tweet written the same day as Kriseman’s letter to Brandes, Sprowls said the Board of Trustees and administration at USF has “assured us of their commitment to growing enrollment at USF St. Petersburg with a strong goal of 650 students for next year’s class.”
— Chris Sprowls (@ChrisSprowls) October 8, 2020
Kriseman, however, is still skeptical.
“I would love to have hope and feel like I can trust them,” he said of Sprowls and Brandes. “But they haven’t given us a whole lot of reasons why.”
The Catalyst will continue to monitor and report on issues related to consolidation.