Thursday, February 23, 2012

Florida State Senator J.D. Alexander Doesn't Care About USF Polytechnic

When a term-limited politician known more for being a bully than an ambassador in the public eye steps up against higher education, it would seem reasonable that his fight is a ludicrous attempt to go out of office swinging.

But what if he hit for the fences and scored, too?

Such is the possibility surrounding J.D. Alexander (seen left), a Florida State Senator from Lake Wales in Polk County. The Republican's latest political move may be his boldest yet, in which he wants the University of South Florida's (USF) Polytechnic campus in Lakeland to split into it's own separate, accredited institution by as soon as July 1, 2012. Never mind that such a split would leave thousands of students and faculty out to dry, and that accreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools normally takes anywhere from three to five years.

This is one man's vain vision to leave a lasting impression before he leaves office. And what better way to do that than by forming a new university that goes against everything his constituents want?

Initially, the issue was whether or not the Polytechnic campus should sever it's ties to USF so soon. USF Poly, as it's shorthanded in the media, was founded as the latest USF school in 1988. The school changed its name from USF Lakeland to reflect an adopted polytechnic model of education in 2008. Less than four years later, in November 2011, it was decided that while a split was a necessary step in the right direction to become Florida Polytechnic University in the future, several guidelines had to be achieved, which are expected to take several years. USF was also put in charge of guiding it's Polytechnic campus through the process of independence.

At best, the changes wouldn't take full effect until the current student body had a sufficient amount of time to graduate under USF Poly. At worst, those caught in-between the transition would be grandfathered into the USF system, ultimately allowing students to retain an alumni status with USF. Either way, it appeared to be a compromise worth agreeing upon.

But now, less than four months later, it's evidently clear Senator Alexander is using his political clout to get what he wants. And what does he want? To pull the rug out from underneath those whose future depends on USF Poly.

He blames USF for not doing enough to see this transition through, going so far as to say he's "lost confidence in USF's leadership." In retaliation, Senator Alexander, who's also the head of the Senate Budget Committee, proposed up to $108 million in cuts to USF which, among others, would eliminate all funding to USF Poly. The irony of it all is that he helped fund tens of millions of dollars to USF Poly for a new, high-tech campus alongside Interstate 4. But that was years ago. Today, he's taking a personal vendetta against a school he helped build.

What makes a split of USF Poly so acrimonious is that the institution serves a unique demographic. As of the 2010-2011 school year, the average student is 29 years old, and a majority (61%) go to the school part-time. One of the main reasons so many go to USF Poly in the first place is because the location is more convenient than driving to and from Tampa (where USF's flagship university is located) on a regular basis. The campus also has it's own unique program requirements, from majors in IT and industrial engineering to Bachelor of Science in Applied Science degrees, exclusive to USF Poly. If this school splits before the year is up, many students will face one of three options: stay with USF and either drive or relocate to Tampa, enroll at another university with no guarantee all their credits will be retained, or quit going to school altogether.

It's equally acrimonious because Senator Alexander's demand to split soon or else came so abruptly, it caught practically everyone involved off-guard. At the beginning of February 2012, there was no indication that the immediate fate of USF Poly would hang on the whim of a state Senator from a small town in central Florida. Students learned, professors taught, and administrators led under the assumption they still had time to acquiesce this transition.

But now more than ever, the people of USF Poly must object to Senator Alexander's plan and stand up to other influential leaders and politicians in the state of Florida as a united institution. Because if they don't, one man will get his way and leave thousands more disillusioned by the American higher educational system today.

Picture of JD Alexander courtesy of the Florida Senate
Picture of USF Poly campus courtesy of Rodda Construction, Inc.

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