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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Florida Legislators, bully and intimidate to get their way


by the editorial board

A key step in the quest to make the University of South Florida's Lakeland Polytechnic campus an independent university is for it to achieve accreditation. It now is accredited only because of its tie to USF.

USF had applied for Lakeland to be given separate accreditation as a branch campus, but that effort was suspended when Polytechnic supporters sought to make the 1,300-student school the state's 12th university.

The Florida Board of Governors recently voted to support independence, but only if Polytechnic met a number of goals, including accreditation.

Winning that designation might be difficult if the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, which is responsible for accrediting Southern universities, is serious about upholding its requirements.

A provision in the organization's "The Principles of Accreditation: Foundations for Quality Enhancement" mandates that the university leadership be "free from undue influence from political, religious, or other external bodies and protects the institution from such influence."

Yet were it not for the political pressure of powerful Polk County Sen. JD Alexander, head of the Senate Budget Committee, the Polytechnic scheme would never be given serious thought.

Polytechnic has no buildings and no academic achievement of note. Most of its students are business and education majors. Talk of making it a separate university focused on the applied sciences at this stage is premature by years.

But Alexander has made clear Polytechnic is his pet project, and those who raise objections do so at their peril.

He began demanding independence after USF approved only three of the Lakeland school's 13 requests for new degrees, though showering degrees on a school with scarcely 1,000 students is hardly a wise use of limited education dollars.

Alexander appeared before the Board of Governors to promote independence. That he controls the higher-education purse strings in the Senate was not lost on them.

Alexander brought along state Sen. Don Gaetz, scheduled to be the next Senate president, for added political ammunition. Gaetz pointedly reminded the governors, "As the incoming president of the Senate, I hear it said every year, from people sitting at this table and from the people you hire to come and talk to me — that the best investment in economic development and the future of Florida is higher education.

"And like Sen. Alexander, I believe that. But if that's true when you lobby me, then it's doubly true when the Polytechnic team makes its convincing and compelling case to you."

This was nonsense, since Polytechnic's case is based on nothing more than grandiose plans and Alexander's political influence.

Polytechnic, now associated with a major research university, will lose resources and prestige if it goes it alone.

Students and faculty members oppose separation.

Taxpayers will pay millions more to support an independent university. Polytechnic now shares numerous USF resources, from computer networks to the admissions system. But such responsible objections are crushed by Alexander's independence juggernaut.

At the governors' meeting, Michael Long, the student member of the panel, told how during an earlier private session with Alexander, the senator indicated higher education funding would suffer if Polytechnic was not granted independence. Long said Alexander chastised him after the governor's meeting and told the student he had marred his future career.

Given the political intimidation surrounding the decision, it is no surprise the board approved independence. Yet the governors had the good judgment to impose a number of sensible conditions, including accreditation and meeting ambitious enrollment targets.

But that did not stop Alexander's political machinations.

A few days later, Alexander attended a meeting between Polytechnic faculty members and USF president Judy Genshaft, who opposes independence at this time. It seemed an attempt at intimidation.

Even so, faculty members later voted their confidence in Genshaft, but voted no confidence in Marshall Goodman, the Polytechnic chancellor who has been Alexander's lackey in the independence campaign.

And then, though the Board of Governors had voted for USF to oversee Polytechnic's transition to independence, Alexander contacted University of Florida President Bernie Machen.

Machen said he could step in and have UF oversee Polytechnic's independence "because I do not endorse the branch-campus model of research universities."

Alexander's interference adds further confusion to Florida's embattled higher education. Let's not forget that Frank Brogan is chancellor of the university system, not Machen.

To be sure, an element of politics surrounds the founding of any academic institution. But the push for Polytechnic has been solely about power politics, not about meeting Florida' academic needs, much less spending higher-education dollars wisely.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges should see that Polytechnic is a textbook case of "undue political influence."

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