Bait & switch: Senator Alexander's unfair fight
Paula DockeryIn this year's session, both houses of the legislature were fooled by one of the oldest tricks in the book, the bait and switch.
Published: March 10, 2012
Published: March 10, 2012
For more than 20 years, the University of South Florida has operated a campus in Lakeland, giving thousands of students the opportunity to earn degrees from a respected accredited university. But one senator, Budget Committee Chairman J.D. Alexander, is on a mission to rid the area of USF, and immediately open an unaccredited, unknown 12th public university.
The Board of Governors, which regulates the state's university system, passed a plan with required benchmarks for USF Polytechnic in Lakeland to earn accreditation and transform into an independent university. But the comprehensive plan wasn't quick enough for Alexander, and he decided to speed things up by using his power in the legislature — but he ran into one big problem: immediate independence is a reckless, harmful policy decision.
Alexander's plan for an independent Florida Polytechnic University is full of holes. The professors at the Lakeland campus will be fired or, if they're lucky, forced to relocate. The independent university, without the connection to USF, won't receive accreditation for years. Recruiters have to go as far as India to find students interested in the university. And the proposed campus is a dirt lot.
With so many flaws, even Florida's Legislature wouldn't go along with the plan, but Alexander isn't a man who gives up easily. And like a bank robber out of options, the budget chairman grabbed a hostage.
He had already made it known publicly that USF President Judy Genshaft was an enemy because she would not support his plan. So with his position as the Budget Committee chairman, he took Genshaft's entire university hostage by threatening to cut $79 million, 58 percent of the university's state funding.
In this tight budget year, unfortunately the legislature has decided to cut funding to all the universities, but the cuts to USF were much higher than other institutions and an obvious punishment for disagreeing with the obstinate senator. But the red herring worked, and legislators from the Tampa area panicked over the proposed cuts. Their concern was reasonable, since cutting $79 million would hurt the university, students and the area's economy.
But in their panic, instead of fighting for fair funding, they fell into a trap. From the very beginning, it was obvious the House wouldn't go along with the severe funding cuts. Sometimes, even here in Tallahassee, policy matters more than politics — and this was blatantly bad policy.
Alexander couldn't have won a fair fight, and amendments to restore fair funding to USF would have been supported in the Senate — but before any votes were taken, deals were made and senators swallowed the bait.
After a compromise was reached, the Senate brought up Alexander's conforming bill to disregard the Board of Governors' plan for independence and immediately separate USF and the Lakeland campus.
Lakeland students flocked to Tallahassee to oppose the measure, but their voices were drowned out by the budget chairman's manufactured crisis. The Senate voted 35-4 to create the state's 12th university without a campus, accreditation, faculty or students.
Now the future of thousands of students — and the success of Florida Polytechnic University — lies in the hands of Gov. Rick Scott, who faces a choice of sound policy or surly politics.
The governor should keep USF's fair funding, respect the Board of Governors' constitutional autonomy on higher education decision-making and veto the bill to immediately make USF Poly a separate university.
The governor says he likes things he can measure. Rather than submitting to one senator's whim, he should make USF Polytechnic first meet measurable milestones on a solid path to independence.
Paula Dockery is a term-limited Republican senator from Lakeland who is chronicling her final year in the Florida Senate. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. © Florida Voices