The Florida Legislature on Monday passed a higher education bill that brings the University of South Florida closer to accreditation consolidation.
Now, the bill — sponsored in the Senate by Sen. President-Designate Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton — will go to the desk of Gov. Rick Scott. He vetoed a similar bill last year, according to the Associated Press.
Should Scott sign the bill, USF Sarasota-Manatee and USF St. Petersburg, which have operated as independent campuses for years, would again be consolidated under one accreditation, rather than each campus receiving their own. USF Sarasota-Manatee was first granted accreditation independent of the Tampa branch in 2011.
It’s an exciting move, said Karen Holbrook, regional chancellor at USF Sarasota-Manatee, who prefers to call the possible result of the bill a “reunification” of campuses rather than a consolidation.
“I like ‘reunification’ because we’re all coming together again, to me that says each of us is going to maintain … our identity and I think that’s important,” Holbrook said, emphasizing that it’s important the campus not lose it’s “uniqueness.”
Byron Shinn, chairman of the USF Sarasota-Manatee Board, a USF System trustee and a Bradenton accountant, said he is glad the bill has made it this far and expects Gov. Scott to sign it into law.
“I’m thrilled, I think it’s a great opportunity for the system to continue to grow,” Shinn said. “I think this is going to be great for the greater Tampa Bay area and just awesome for the students.”
The “reunification” with the chance to be a preeminent university would allow for students to have more options for programs as well as a chance for the university to offer PhD programs, Holbrook said.
Shinn was not surprised the bill passed the legislature, saying it was an important issue dealing with higher education and “everybody recognized the system could be changed.”
If the bill is signed, a committee will be established to work on the process of converting from the independent structure to the consolidation. The committee will consist of more than a dozen appointees who will help with the transition, Holbrook said.
She noted the school has been having weekly forums about the bill on campus.
“So this isn’t a shock or surprise,” Holbrook said. “So I think everyone’s expecting it to come about. Now is when the hard work begins.”
Galvano said that with the singular accreditation, the campuses would be treated as one, adding that last year the Sarasota-Manatee campus was forced to take $9 million from reserves while Tampa had a nearly $40 million increase in funding, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
In a Jan. 23 email to the USF leadership team, USF President Judy Genshaft wrote, “But we believe there is the potential for significant benefits to our students,” such as the ability to graduate from a preeminent research university or helping them graduate faster and with less debt through more course options.
Two days later, the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees public institutions of higher learning in the state, unanimously endorsed the reunification of USF.
Last month, the USF Sarasota-Manatee Campus Board made a vote of confidence in support of the consolidation concept, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
But not everyone has been thrilled about the accreditation consolidation. The Tampa Bay Times reported some St. Petersburg campus supporters said the move would “turn back the clock” on the campus that has worked to become independent, some remembering tension between the St. Petersburg and Tampa campuses over the years.
Holbrook acknowledged there are some “unknowns” still to work through at USF Sarasota-Manatee, including concerns from faculty about how tenure, promotions and curriculum will work under the system.
The bill also increased funds to the state’s Bright Futures scholarship to return the scholarship to full-funding, and included a provision that eliminated “free speech zones” on college campuses, according to the AP. It passed the House 84-28 and the Senate 33-5.
The Senate accepted changes to the bill made by the House, which included the USF consolidation, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
“This legislation will provide the policy and budget resources our universities need to increase their ability to compete as national destination institutions, while preserving access and increasing affordability for Floridians,” Galvano said in a statement.