The Sarasota EDUCATION community celebrated when the University of South-Florida Sarasota-Manatee five years ago won separate accreditation as an independent college. The recognition from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools meant independent budgeting power and the ability to offer complete, four-year programs without students ever having to drive to the University of South Florida’s main campus in Tampa.

But now that’s all about to disappear. Rather, the University of South Florida works rapidly at the consolidation process, unifying all the campuses within the university network into a single entity once more. Regional Chancellor Karen Holbrook says this move will improve the overall standing of USF, just the third university in Florida to earn coveted “preeminent” status. She assures local leaders the change will allow engineering and science programs to thrive in Sarasota, which will now have more academic offerings than ever on campus. “We are already feeling a lot of the positives,” she says. For those who worked for years toward earning accreditation for USFSM, consolidation remains a bitter pill. But it also seems the focus of Tampa leadership for a school yearning for national recognition and that has seen campuses splinter off before. University leadership promises this change will be good for everyone that earns a degree embossed with the school’s green and gold seal.

When the University of South Florida named Arthur Guilford as regional chancellor for its Sarasota-Manatee campus, the administrator took on several long-term goals. One of the most ambitious? Winning the campus independent accreditation. From 2007 to 2014, the work became the largest project during his tenure on campus. “To be honest, there is something demoralizing about spending seven of your last working years on implementing something, then having it undone in the next two, three or four years,” he says.

The whiplash felt by Guilford may feel more personal, but it’s shared by a community slowly sold on the advantages of USFSM’s independence, only to be told quickly to buy into consolidation. The saga in some ways dates back decades. USF opened its main campus in Tampa in 1956 and over the next 20 years quickly expanded its footprint. The university by 1974 boasted six teaching sites across Florida, including space on the still-private New College of Florida. Then when New College merged into USF in 1975, USFSM as a branch campus was born.

But as the school grew, so did its campuses. USF once had a campus in Fort Myers, but formally closed it in 1997 as Florida Gulf Coast University offered its first classes. New College in 2001 broke from USF once more, this time becoming an independent school in the State University System; USF kept some property to maintain USFSM as a regional campus. And in 2008, the state authorized Florida Polytechnic University, replacing USF’s Lakeland campus. The school formally started offering classes in 2014.

While those campuses looked to split from USF, university operations in St. Petersburg and Sarasota looked at a different route. The Florida Legislature directed those schools instead to earn independent accreditation. The goal was to establish a network of schools within the SUS—to make the University of South Florida something akin to the Cal State system in California or the University of Houston in Texas.

That was the directive for Guilford, who led the search committee for a Sarasota regional chancellor, only to be tapped himself, and took the reins at USFSM. By the time he retired, the school had its own hospitality program housed there. Students had the ability to take classes in St. Petersburg or Tampa with no bureaucratic fuss. The school started offering classes to freshmen for the first time, and a student could earn a bachelor’s degree in a few select fields without ever having to leave Sarasota.

More importantly in terms of autonomy, Guilford had complete control over his own budget. The school maintained a joint police force with New College, but for the most part could use tuition from Sarasota students entirely on the Sarasota campus.

There always remained some resistance to the idea. While the Florida Legislature mandated USFSM earn accreditation, the SUS Board of Governors refused to ever recognize the St. Petersburg and Sarasota campuses as independent schools. Guildford attended Board of Governor’s meetings, but was not allowed to present on behalf of the school.

And as far as SACS was concerned, the school maintained everything it needed to keep its accreditation in 2016. At that point, the school offered 17 complete bachelor’s degree programs. But further north, a competing agenda started to take hold, one that would prioritize national prestige over local authority.

State Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, started working toward becoming Senate President from almost the moment he won his Senate seat in 2012. The first Southwest Florida lawmaker to lead a chamber since John McKay in 2002, Galvano said his goal the entire time was making sure he had the power to make Tampa Bay the leader on government, business and policy in the state. “I’m focused on doing the best by everybody in the state and to fulfill this role as it’s required,” he says. “But you don’t stop being parochial.”

The day he formally won election as the next Senate President in 2017, he sat down with USF President Judy Genshaft, and told her of his plans for the school. He wanted the 61-year-old school to become a preeminent university. But that involved dropping the independent accreditations for the satellite campuses.

“It's only going to bring more opportunity to Sarasota and Manatee,” Galvano says.

Genshaft said she would let lawmakers decide what to do, but quickly started to assemble a list of benefits to the University. Already a top-tier research institution, counting the entire student body toward the university’s population would show its importance to the state of Florida. There are other reasons consolidation would need to happen as well.

USFSM officials note the school boasts the highest percent of graduates that have jobs immediately upon graduation (though they admit that’s largely because much of the Sarasota student body hold jobs before they even start taking classes). Rolling the best metrics from the satellite campuses into USF’s profile makes the school look stronger all-around.

In January 2018, Genshaft issued a full-throated endorsement for consolidation to faculty on all campuses. “We believe there is the potential for significant benefits to our students," she wrote. "Benefits like enhancing the reputation of the entire USF system and having all students graduate from a preeminent research university, or helping students graduate faster and with less debt by providing a wider variety of course options and majors, including those in health care and engineering. Or the benefits of graduate research and PhD opportunities in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee."

The Legislature moved ahead with consolidation. Regional Chancellor Sandra Stone quickly stepped down as chancellor, and, as a professor, raised concerns about the plan. At a town hall in March, she stressed students in Sarasota, most of whom live an hour or more from the Tampa campus, must be able to complete degrees without travel.

But if the goal was priming USF for preeminence, it worked. In June, the Florida Board of Governors voted unanimously to designate USF as a “Preeminent State Research University.” Only the University of Florida and Florida State University previously enjoyed the status.

“This critical designation will have an exponential impact on our continued efforts to grow our research enterprise, provide the highest-quality education to our students, strengthen our partnerships and help us make an even bigger difference in our community,” Genshaft says. In this coming fiscal year alone, the formal upgrade in status guarantees an extra $6.5 million in state dollars will flow to the school (though it will be controlled entirely by a Tampa-based Board of Trustees). When Genshaft announced her retirement last fall, achieving preeminence stood as her chief achievement in 18 years helming the university.

Holbrook came on the new regional chancellor in January 2018. And she notes that USFSM does not yet enjoy that preeminent status and won’t until consolidation completes. Indeed, she says she’s had to face some skepticism from Tampa officials worried adding Sarasota and St. Petersburg students into statistics will threaten standing.

She spoke to lawmakers in February about the boosts of consolidation, which will formally be complete by fall of 2020, for the Sarasota campus. The school this fall will see 37 new classes offered in a variety of programs, most for majors where students previously must make Tampa their home campus.

While USFSM post-independence started serving students specializing in occupation-oriented fields like nursing and hospitality, there will now be more offerings in engineering and tech. Indeed, the campus’ chief local ask from lawmakers in this year’s legislative session will be funding for a new 75,000-square-foot STEM facility to open on the Sarasota campus. “This is going to contribute to the economic development in our area,” Holbrook promises.

State Rep. Newt Newton, D-St. Petersburg, says he believes the move will ultimately serve all parties well. “Now you can get a four-year degree from a preeminent university without ever leaving home,” he says. It’s a message he’s tried to stress to people in Sarasota and St. Petersburg concerned about the change.

Guilford hopes that’s all true. While forfeiting independent accreditation smarts, he acknowledges there are some obvious benefits to consolidation. But he hates that USFSM leaders no longer control their own budget. They can’t recruit freshmen into the new dorms on campus, and ultimately become a satellite campus.

His major concern now remains that USFSM stay a regional campus, and not get relegated to being a teaching center that facilities would be kept for classes but no programs would be headquartered in Sarasota. But he also worries no tenured professors will want to work in Sarasota, and all top academic talent will go to the Tampa campus. “My gut says the money tied to preeminence isn’t going to travel to St. Pete and to Sarasota,” he says.

Holbrook disagrees, and says it’s in the best interest of USF’s main campus to keep academics thriving at all campuses. Those new programs and classes coming to USFSM can only be offered if the main campus continues to fund capable faculty. “The only thing we need to keep programs going is demand,” she says.

Most importantly, nothing for now will be going away from the Sarasota-Manatee campus. She envisions a growth in options for students here. And with so much invested in USFSM to date, she has no doubt the school will remain a branch campus. “I’m not so pessimistic,” she says.

As for Guilford, he’s now retired, and despite leading the SACS independent accreditation, no one working on consolidation has ever called him about what should happen with the process now. “I just don’t think anybody knows what the full ramifications will be,” he says.