A powerful state senator’s months-long offensive against a major university finally exploded over the past week in a double-barreled legislative assault that can only be described as vengeful. The battle now threatens higher education programs, students and professors in Manatee County.
Sen. JD Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, is waging a scorched-earth war against the University of South Florida over the school’s lack of enthusiasm for the independence of its Lakeland campus -- even though the school agreed to a pathway for Polytechnic to become the 12th state university.
Obsessed with creating a legacy, last week the termed-out Lake Wales senator slipped language into a budget bill at the last minute designed to sever the Lakeland campus from USF immediately and establish “Florida Polytechnic” -- stunning even some of his fellow lawmakers and the state university system’s Board of Governors.
Alexander followed that up this week with a punitive 2012-2013 state budget outline that slashes $79 million in state funding for USF. Adding insult to injury, he also calls for another $25 million to be held in contingency while Polytechnic separates, eliminates $6 million in funding for the university’s pharmacy school, and forces USF to absorb $16 million in costs for Polytechnic staff and faculty -- an overall $129 million hit to the school.
His unconscionable proposal represents a whopping 58 percent budget reduction, nowhere near the Senate cuts for the state’s other universities.
The damage would be far-reaching, with both USF Sarasota-Manatee and State College of Florida aghast at the potentially devasting impacts on higher education and the Tampa Bay region’s economy. Both Manatee County schools send students on to USF’s Tampa campus.
The House proposes far more modest and reasonable trims in the university system, with USF losing 9 percent in funding.
Alexander claims his actions are not punitive, but history clearly shows that narrative is a fairy tale.
USF Polytechnic officially proposed independence to the Board of Governors in September after months of speculation, with Alexander leading the way.
Envisioned as an economic powerhouse, Polytechnic unveiled grandiose plans in October for a sprawling ultramodern campus designed by a world famous architect -- even producing a $140,000 YouTube video of the design.
The projected cost for the initial structure, the science and technology building, and site preparation for future construction came in at $90 million to $100 million. Beginning in 2017, the plan called for another $222 million for the campus.
Later in October, USF first expressed doubts about Polytechnic’s independence, citing inflated enrollment projections, costs and accreditation. Marshall Goodman, then Polytechnic’s president, rebuffed USF’s criticisms in a letter to the state university system chancellor.
But USF persisted, stating the Lakeland campus overstated assets by tens of millions of dollars, among other charges.
In early November, the Board of Governors voted to require Polytechnic to reach strict benchmarks in order to achieve independence -- an action that would have delayed any split for three to five years.
At that meeting, New College’s Michael Long, the board’s only student member, expressed confusion over Alexander’s claim about his long support for higher education.
Long stated that when he met with Alexander before the board meeting, the Polk County senator threatened to pull that legislative and financial support should the board reject Polytechnic’s independence. “I do not feel very well represented by JD and his comments,” Long told the full board before a hushed crowd.
Nobody else stood up to the bullying senator, who then fired off a scathing letter to the Board of Governors accusing USF President Judy Genshaft and other university leaders of misleading statements “not consistent with the facts.”
Genshaft sent a reply standing her ground. A day later, Alexander attended a surprise meeting Genshaft held with Polytechnic’s faculty -- remaining silent but intimidating by his presence. Always the bully.
In December, Genshaft fired Goodman as Polytechnic president, explaining she had lost confidence in his leadership. That further deepened the rift with Alexander.
Alexander’s actions over the past week are nothing more than blatant political retribution against a fine institution. He is abusing his office in order to achieve his personal goal of a institutional legacy -- at all costs, not only in political capital but in state revenue even in tough economic times.
The Senate should be debating how Florida can improve higher education in order to boost the state’s economy -- and equitable treatment of all state universities. Alexander’s quest for greatness conflicts with sound public policy.
Sen. Bennett’s stand
Bradenton Sen. Mike Bennett stands beside his fellow Republican, telling the Herald he doubts Alexander’s USF budget proposal is retaliation.
“This (creating an independent university) is high on his list. Although I don’t think the budget cut is all that fair, I know him to be one of the fairest people I know. I will back up my friend.”
That last statement constitutes cronyism over constituents, a deplorable stand that voters should well remember.
As to the preposterous fairness issue, Alexander has shown nothing but contempt for USF -- his raw power plays over the past week proof positive.
To say we’re disappointed in Bennett’s position would be the ultimate understatement.