President Genshaft, Board of Governors leaning toward USF reunification

The University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee
The University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee Aimee Blodgett

University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft sent a letter to her leadership team last week concerning rumors circulating about proposed legislation that would bring all three of USF’s campuses — Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee — under one accreditation umbrella beginning in 2020.

“It is still early,” Genshaft wrote in the Jan. 23 email. “But we believe there is the potential for significant benefits to our students. Benefits like ... having all students graduate from a preeminent research university or helping students graduate faster and with less debt by providing a wider variety of course options.”

Two days after Genshaft’s email, the Florida Board of Governors, the 17-member board that oversees all 12 public institutions of higher learning in Florida, unanimously endorsed what is commonly called the “reunification” of USF.

But questions persist.

What is USF accreditation reunification really about?

Do USF Sarasota-Manatee leaders, like Bradenton’s Byron Shinn, support it?

It’s all about uniformity

The proposed changes, outlined in Florida House Bill 423, are essentially to put USF back in line with the 11 other public colleges and universities in Florida, Mark Walsh, assistant vice president for government relations for the USF System, said Monday.

“The other 11 institutions are under a single accreditation and we are the only outlier,” Walsh said. “This issue is often brought up by the governor, the Legislature and others. It’s been a topic of conversation that we are different.”

About 17 years ago, the Florida Legislature created a law that USF campuses should have separate accreditation to provide autonomy for each campus, Walsh said.

USF Sarasota-Manatee Board chair supports reunification

As chairman of the USF Sarasota-Manatee Board and a USF System trustee, Shinn, a Bradenton accountant, is often considered the voice of the local campus.

On Monday Shinn said he is wholeheartedly behind USF reunification.

“First reason,” Shinn said. “When our community speaks about having nursing and engineering students for the workforce, we are limited as to how much and how long it takes to stand up a program. It take several years to get approval under USF Sarasota-Manatee status. But by being in one system we can stand up new programs immediately if the demand is there, which we know it is.”

The second reason, Shinn said, involves the phrase Genshaft used in her email, “preeminent research university.”

Right now only the University of Florida and Florida State have been named “preeminent research universities” in the state system, a status that is worth about $10 million in extra state funding, Shinn said.

USF is on the verge of attaining “preeminent” status, which means USF Sarasota-Manatee would share in that windfall, Shinn added.

“Sharing the preeminent funding among all the campuses is very important to the region,” Shinn said.

USF Sarasota-Manatee graduates would get a degree under reunification that reads University of South Florida, not USF Sarasota-Manatee, which could mean more to them if USF-Tampa gains “preeminent” stature, Walsh said.

Reunification would also allow USF Sarasota-Manatee to have PHD programs, Shinn said.

“Right now, there is no PHD programs allowed except in Tampa,” Shinn said. “If we have one system we can put PHD programs in all three campuses, which will help attract the best talent in faculty. When you have PHD programs you have research. And when you have that level of student and faculty, it raises the bar for everyone in the program. It puts it all up. By two campuses not having any PHD programs, it gives the perception that the regional campuses are not as good. So having one system with the ability to have PHD programs is wonderful.

“Reunification will only makes us better,” Shinn added of the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus. “Access to more money, access to PHD and access to sharing resources at the highest levels and streamlining access to programs for regional students. All this is why I am excited.”

The name of the regional campus would stay USF Sarasota-Manatee, Shinn said.

The House bill, which also has companion legislation in Senate Bill 4, is working its way through committees, Walsh said.

Richard Dymond: 941-745-7072, @RichardDymond