University leaders, lawmakers slam consolidation plans

By Ana Ceballos

News Service of Florida

A House proposal seeking to abolish the independent status of two Florida universities is spurring a fierce fight, as a bipartisan group of legislators last Wednesday decried the plan.

The plan, included in a sweeping higher-education bill (HB 7087), would merge New College of Florida with Florida State University and fold the Florida Polytechnic University into the University of Florida, in an effort to save the state “tens of millions of dollars,” according to bill sponsor Rep. Randy Fine.

But leaders at both New College and Florida Polytechnic, along with a group of lawmakers, questioned the purported savings and called on the Legislature to do more research before the consolidation plans are approved.

“The disruption is way more than the savings would justify and completely threatens this unique school,” New College President Donal O’Shea told reporters at a press conference in the Capitol last Wednesday.

Donal O’Shea, president of New College of Florida, is concerned that a proposed merger with FSU could be disruptive.
Photo special to the Outlook

O’Shea said merging New College, a liberal-arts school in Sarasota, with FSU would offer “microscopic” savings to the state because its budget is less than 1 percent of the entire state university system’s budget. Furthermore, he said it would be a “shame” to see the school lose its independent accreditation because of “hasty legislation.”

Sen. Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican and chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, also slammed the proposal in an opinion piece co-authored by state Reps. Wengay Newton, D-St. Petersburg; Will Robinson, R-Bradenton; Margaret Good, D-Sarasota; Tommy Gregory, R-Sarasota; and James Buchanan, R-Osprey.

“A significant decision, such as this, should require time, workshops, and empirical data to formulate the best solution for all parties. Like with any bill in the legislative process, it is imperative that we vet the idea in committee and allow all institutions and stakeholders to voice their opinions and concerns,” the bipartisan group of lawmakers wrote last Wednesday.

Lawmakers from Sarasota and Manatee counties are not the only ones pushing back against the measure.

Senate Education Appropriations Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, told The News Service of Florida last week that she would oppose “any policy that would move Polytech under any university.”

“We have not looked at any of the benefits that have been claimed by the House,” Stargel said Feb. 12, the day the House proposal was rolled out.

While most of the pushback is focused on policy, some university leaders and lawmakers also have opposed the proposal because they were caught off-guard by the bill.

Fine, R-Palm Bay, said last week he did not warn officials at New College or at Florida Polytechnic that the bill was coming, but that FSU and UF were “well-versed on the plans.”

However, O’Shea told reporters that FSU officials told him they do not support the merger.

“They were as surprised as we were and they are opposed,” O’Shea said. “For them, New College would be a distraction. They are moving in other directions and for us it wouldn’t be good.”

Neither FSU or UF responded to requests for comment last Wednesday. Fine declined to say what kind of feedback he has received from FSU and UF about his proposal.

House budget chief Travis Cummings, R-Fleming Island, said in an interview Wednesday that he is still vetting the measure.

“While our taxpayers will greatly benefit from this legislation, we look forward to hearing from all the stakeholders,” he said.

According to a House staff analysis of the bill, the university mergers would save the state an “indeterminate” amount of money and any potential savings would only be known after the transfer occurred. Under the bill, the colleges would be required to start the consolidation process in July.

The House Appropriations Committee is likely to hear the education proposal next week, chairman Cummings said. His committee is the only stop the bill faces before a full House vote.

O’Shea and Florida Polytechnic President Randy Avent said this week they hoped to meet with Fine to hash out concerns about the consolidation plans.

Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, told reporters he met with O’Shea earlier to air some of his concerns about New College.

As they deal with the legislative proposal in Tallahassee, both college leaders have been addressing concerns of students, who are fearful about the potential mergers.

For instance, Avent worries that discussion of the proposal, even if it does not pass, will have an impact on the school’s enrollment because some students may not want to join a school with a potential shake-up on the horizon.

“I don’t think it will decimate it,” Avent said, “but I think we will take a hit.” 

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