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USF Poly drama heating up as Senate budget committee gets underway

University of South Florida students have arrived at the Capitol, ready to protest Sen. JD Alexander's proposed cuts to USF -- which are larger than any other state university -- before his 9 a.m. budget committee. They left campus at 3 a.m. on two shuttle buses.

The meeting is sure to be filled with fireworks, coming a day after USF supporters across the state bombarded lawmakers' voicemail and email in-boxes with pleas to spare USF from disproportionate cuts. The reductions are making the biggest splash, but on the back burner is another controversy: a bill slipped into the budget that would immediately split USF Polytechnic off into the state's 12th university. It's a move Alexander has crusaded for months. 

The bill essentially overturns an independence path laid out in November by the Florida Board of Governors, which is charged with setting policy for the state university system. The BOG wanted USF Poly to stay under USF's umbrella until it gets its own accreditation, increases enrollment and builds at least two of the buildings on its new campus. Alexander and others have said the new bill basically reinforces what the board's does -- only faster -- because he doesn't trust USF's stewardship of the plan.

The Board of Governors has not come out as a group to say what they think about the move. But Sen. Steve Oelrich, who chairs the Senate's higher education committee, said the Board of Governors indicated to him that it wants to stick with the guidelines already set. 

Oelrich, who also sits on the Senate's higher education appropriations committee, was the only senator to raise concerns about the surprise split-off bill when that committee chair, Sen. Evelyn Lynn, stuck it at the end of the committee's budget recommendations last week. 

"Is this the procedure, to get one piece of paper to create a new university?" he asked at the time.

The only member of the Board of Governors to speak publicly about the controversy was John Temple, a vocal critic of the push to create "Florida Polytechnic" from the start. Temple also said that what the Legislature, lead by Alexander, is proposing to do flies in the face of the very purpose of having a Board of Governors -- which is to govern the university system without outside political influence.

Frank Brogan, chancellor of the state university system, wouldn't go that far. On Tuesday Brogan said BOG leadership is open to having "additional conversations" with lawmakers about the best process to bring the new polytechnic to reality. 

"The beauty is -- same endpoint: University status and accreditation. It is the route to get there where there's a diversion," Brogan said. "The Board of Governors, in a very thoughtful process, carefully examined a lot of options to that same end and selected the one that they did. If this new version ends up becoming the rule of the day, we're going to have to back up and figure out how to make it work."

Brogan said as he understands it, it's the Legislature that has authority to create new universities, as they hold budget power.