As USF steers closer to consolidating, a big decision remains

Teams across the University of South Florida system have worked for months on ideas for consolidating its campuses. Now, the final decisions belong to the board of trustees.
A student walks near the University Student Center on the USF St. Petersburg campus last week. A task force has proposed that the downtown campus retain autonomy as a “branch campus”  as officials move toward consolidating USF. But the final decision is up to the USF board of trustees. [CHRIS URSO   |   Times]
A student walks near the University Student Center on the USF St. Petersburg campus last week. A task force has proposed that the downtown campus retain autonomy as a “branch campus” as officials move toward consolidating USF. But the final decision is up to the USF board of trustees. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published February 11
Updated February 11

ST. PETERSBURG — After months of brainstorming, a complex effort to consolidate the University of South Florida system into one university enters a new phase this week.

The USF board of trustees will take the reins of a process that has been under way since the fall as faculty, staff and civic leaders across the three USF campuses hashed out ideas in dozens of meetings. At issue are details large and small, from the inner workings of departments, to campus culture to who will be in charge of what.

That last one will loom large as the trustees begin their work.

Accreditation rules say one site must be designated as the main campus, which many have suggested should be USF Tampa. The others can take on one of two titles with vastly different meanings.

If designated as "branch" campuses, USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee would retain high levels of autonomy. The campuses would keep strong leaders in place who would continue to have discretion over hiring, spending and curriculum, according to accreditation rules.

However, many in the USF community fear the two smaller campuses could become "instructional sites" instead. That designation, according to leaders at both institutions, would strip them of the independence that has helped them thrive.

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While a decision on USF's structure won't be final until March 2020, when trustees submit a plan to the region's accreditation agency, conversations on the topic could begin any time, according to USF spokesman Adam Freeman.

They’ll be guided by a series of recommendations from multiple groups: A 13-member task force, an 86-member committee and most recently, teams of faculty members across the three campuses who finished their work on Friday.

Some of the efforts were guided by Huron, a consulting company that submitted a report to trustees in December, and inspired by public input gathered through town hall meetings, Freeman said.

None of the groups has explicitly recommended the instructional site model, but task force leader Mike Griffin said he has "come into contact with people” who favor it. He declined to name them.

Meanwhile, others like him feel strongly that the branch campus option is the best way to ensure success for a consolidated USF.

"The branch campus designation is a really big deal," said Griffin, a local businessman and USF Tampa graduate. "It's about maintaining the unique identify of each campus. … We really believe that is the right path forward."

To be considered as such under accreditation rules, USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee would have to be permanent, offer course programs that lead to a degree, have their own faculty and administration, and maintain authority over budgets and hiring.

Otherwise, the campuses would default to instructional sites.

Griffin will make the case for the branch campus structure on Tuesday, when he is set to present the task force report to a committee of trustees overseeing consolidation.

The document asserts that keeping strong leadership and programs on USF's smaller campuses would boost services for students while ensuring each location can maintain relationships with their communities and attract quality faculty.

"No one would be in a world where they are able to go rogue, but you can still have that organic, upward governance structure," Griffin added in an interview. "We have to be thoughtful about how the designation can elevate research, student graduation, higher paying jobs and philanthropic opportunities."

USF St. Petersburg faculty senate president Ray Arsenault, who served on one of the teams that made consolidation recommendations, has made similar points to university leaders in recent months.

He expressed frustration during a recent campus board meeting, warning leaders it would be difficult to attract high-level professors and researchers to the USF St. Petersburg campus if it becomes an instructional site with little authority over curriculum.

"If you talk to the students and the faculty, they love this campus in a way that I don't think is common," said Arsenault, a historian at USF St. Petersburg for 39 years. "We have a face-to-face, flesh-and-blood culture, and many of the faculty feel that is in danger."

State Rep. Chris Sprowls, a Palm Harbor Republican who led the effort to pass the legislation requiring the consolidation, said he never envisioned the process taking anything away from USF's St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee campuses. He said he will "fully support" the task force recommendation for branch campuses.

"Certainty, the legislation anticipated having one strong USF, but with the realization that there would be two strong branch campus entities," Sprowls said. "We want to make sure the unique identity of each is maintained."

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State Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Manatee, recently tweeted a similar sentiment, praising Griffin's work creating a "road map for consolidation that will benefit the Sarasota community."

The next major consolidation deadline is March 15, when a report by trustees is due to the State University System's Board of Governors. While it won't have details related to organizational structure, it must include a timeline for the rest of the consolidation process.

USF president Judy Genshaft is expected to share details about next steps at the meeting Tuesday, following the presentation by Griffin, who says he doesn't plan to budge on his stance for branch campuses.

"We didn't spend nine or 10 months on something that doesn't get implemented," Griffin said, pointing to the success USF's three campuses have had in recent years while operating with independence.

"When you see and truly feel and witness the upside and the potential here, it's really difficult not to, first be excited, and second, to work to create paths for it to continue."

Contact Megan Reeves at mreeves@tampabay.com. Follow @mareevs.

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