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USF St. Petersburg professors press USF president on consolidation concerns

Margie Manning

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University of South Florida President Steve Currall at USF St. Petersburg on his first day on the job.

University of South Florida President Steve Currall is expected to provide an update on consolidation to the USF board of trustees next week.

University of South Florida St. Petersburg professors will be listening, to see if their concerns about the status of the St. Pete campus will be addressed.

Despite legislation intended to preserve administrative authority at USFSP, some professors fear program funding, personnel issues and community support could be in jeopardy under current consolidation plans, which will bring USF’s three campuses – in Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Sarasota — under a single accreditation beginning July 1, 2020.

Eighteen USFSP professors signed a statement Aug. 29, outlining their concerns, and they reiterated them during an Aug. 30 meeting with Currall in St. Petersburg.

“We feel we have a lot to lose,” history professor Raymond Arsenault, president of the USFSP Faculty Senate, told the St. Pete Catalyst. “We have something to gain too, but we know how things have been going on the campus for the past several years — very, very well.  But it’s a colonial model. We’re the colony and we’re trying to find our place within the empire without being crushed.”

Currall, who began work at USF on July 1 and undertook a listening tour during his first 100 days as president, said he enjoyed the meeting with USFSP faculty and appreciated hearing their ideas, aspirations and concerns.

“These conversations across each of our campuses have been particularly helpful as we work to develop a path forward as one consolidated university,” Currall said in a statement provided to the Catalyst. “One of the common themes I have heard is a desire for clarity, especially around building an academic structure that will facilitate expanded opportunities for students and faculty.  I look forward to providing this important update to the university community soon.  I am confident that by leveraging the strengths of our three campuses, we can elevate all of USF and the entire region.”

Branch campus status

About 65 faculty members and administrators were at the Aug. 30 meeting, including Martin Tadlock, USF St. Petersburg regional chancellor.

Martin Tadlock

Currall is very much aware of what the questions are, Tadlock said.

“He admitted there aren’t answers to some of those questions yet. But there will be when we put together the draft of what the overall university structure will be. That’s coming, but right now he’s still gathering information and opinions about what the structure of USF should be under consolidation,” Tadlock said.

A key issue is whether St. Petersburg and Sarasota will be branch campuses. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges — the accrediting body for USF — has defined a branch campus as one with local administrative authority, including budgetary, hiring and supervisory authority, according to the USFSP professors statement.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislature in June mandating branch status for the two campuses, but documents distributed through the University Faculty System Council in August don’t explain how that will be preserved on the St. Pete and Sarasota campuses, Arsenault said.

Ray Arsenault

His worry is that USFSP will become an “instructional site,” which he said would be not much more than outlying classrooms.

“We are so proud of the academic culture and identify, our close connections to the community and our community engagement. We really feel that what we’ve created over here is perhaps the best model for a state university, better in most respects than the industrial factory model in Tampa,” Arsenault said. “We’re hoping there will be a compromise solution that will allow us to retain some of our special programs and to continue our special identity we have. We are very student centered, with smaller classes, face-to-face relationships. We’re all proud of that. I think that’s the way a state university should operate and you can’t do that when you have a much larger scale.”

Branch campus status is a key issue, Tadlock agreed, but he said the definition from the accrediting body is broad.

“It doesn’t get into the weeds in terms of defining what budget authority means or what hiring authority means. That’s not what the accreditors do. They leave it to the university  to put together a structure that meets the intent of the language in the definition and then they assess the campus  to see if the university is meeting that intent,” he said.

Tadlock also is waiting to hear Corral’s view on the issue of branch campus status.

“He has board policy to follow as well. That board policy gives him the final authority regarding to what extent hiring will be delegated, budgeting will be delegated and so forth. He’s the individual who makes that final decision about to what extent authority will be delegated to the branch campuses,” Tadlock said.

Unique programs

As a separately accredited school, USFSP has developed unique programs, such as computational and applied mathematics, sustainability, conservation biology, digital journalism and design, Florida studies and graphic arts.

“We do not feel it would be in the best interests of students or faculty to fold these programs into existing departments on the Tampa campus, which appears to be the plan under the Proposed Academic Structure,” the USFSP professors statement said.

At the Aug. 30 meeting, Currall acknowledged that.

“One thing he said was that consolidation means one university geographically distributed, but doesn’t necessarily mean homogeneity everywhere,” Arsenault said.

USFSP will remain distinctive, Tadlock said. “We’ll have academic programs that make sense, that won’t be the same as you’ll find on the other two campuses of USF.”

USFSP also will continue to stress partnerships with the St. Petersburg business and civic community, he said.

“The president has made that abundantly clear. Partnerships are critical to the future of the university, whether it’s this campus, the Tampa campus or the Sarasota campus, so we will continue to cultivate those relationships that we’ve had historically for over 50 years here. We’ll continue to expand and build on those. That’s not going to change,” Tadlock said. “This campus will be at the heart of those relationships, because we’re in St. Petersburg and we will work with those individuals and groups and businesses and nonprofits like we always have. I plan on expanding that.”

Arsenault is concerned that philanthropic support from financial backers who want their money to stay in St. Petersburg will dry up if USFSP doesn’t retain its own administrative authority.

He’s sent copies of the USFSP professors statement to Mayor Rick Kriseman, the St. Petersburg City Council, and local members of the Florida House and Senate. He wants to be sure they understand that USFSP is a driver of local economics, culture and community engagement.

“It’s become a jewel in the crown, a beautiful campus, a wonderful location in the Innovation District … It’s almost unmatched in Florida. It’s something the city should treasure. We have to figure out a way to sustain that,” Arsenault said.

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