Rick Scott Signs Law Creating State's 12th Public University for STEM Degrees
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The creation of a “vital” university to expand Florida's number of science and technology graduates will take on life this summer, despite objections from some legislators, students and officials in the Lakeland area.
Gov. Rick Scott signed HB 1994 on Friday creating the independent school by splitting off the 14-year-old branch campus in Polk County from the University of South Florida.
The school, the state's 12th public university seen as a legacy for Senate Budget Committee Chairman J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, will officially take on the new name July 1, but will continue to serve students of USF remaining in Lakeland as part of the Tampa-based university’s programs until they earn degrees.
In a letter to Secretary of State Ken Detzner to announce the signing, Scott declared the school -- with an emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) degrees -- will be "vital to our economy in the years to come."
“At a time when the number of graduates of Florída’s universities in the STEM fields is not projected to meet work force needs, the establishment of Florida Polytechnic University will help us move the needle in the right direction,” Scott wrote.
“It is vital for the future of Florida’s economy that we meet the need for a STEM-educated work force. Failing to meet this challenge will be costly to our state for decades. Florida Polytechnic University can and must play a key role in addressing this challenge and making Florida a competitive leader on a global scale.”
Critics contend the campus will eventually elevate costs for higher education in the state if the science, technology, engineering and math programs that will be the keystone of the university will require additional administration and facilities.
The Florida Democratic Party quickly condemned Scott for signing the bill to speed up the split.
“This move is nothing more than an appalling and wasteful power play by the Republicans in Tallahassee,” party spokeswoman Brannon Jordan stated in a release.
“The people of Florida didn’t ask for this university; they don’t need it and can’t afford it.”
Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, a critic of the split who had earlier in the week expressed disappointment that Scott discussed the plan with Alexander but hadn’t met with her and University of South Florida-Polytechnic students, wasn’t immediately available for comment Friday.
With the bill signed into law, the school will now open without accreditation from the Atlanta-based Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
Accreditation is needed in most cases for students to receive federal financial aid or to have grades transfer to other schools.
The split had been approved by the Florida Board of Governors last fall, but with a stipulation that the new school would remain part of Tampa-based USF until receiving separate accreditation. Accreditation typically takes three to five years.
The board, which has otherwise remained neutral on the separation plans, also required the campus of 4,500 to increase its full-time enrollment by almost 40 percent -- with nearly half the increase in the STEM fields -- and begin construction of planned classrooms and dorms.
Alexander has argued that the branch campus has been unable to score funding priorities for new degree programs while under the wing of the Tampa administration.
On Tuesday, Scott maintained the $33 million designated for the campus in the state’s $70 billion budget.
In support of the bill, Scott wrote that the U.S. Department of Commerce has reported STEM fields have grown three times faster than non-STEM fields in the past decade, while Enterprise Florida claims 15 of the 20 fastest-growing career fields require an education in a STEM area.
“As we strive to make Florida an economic leader in the 21st century, it is imperative that we become competitive with states such as California and Texas in building clusters of STEM-focused industries,” Scott wrote.
Scott also addressed the concerns about accreditation and the financial impact of the new university.
“Because Florida Polytechnic University is receiving the base budget funding previously appropriated to the University of South Florida Polytechnic, the new university will not result in additional financial strain on the State University System or its sister institutions,” Scott wrote.
He added that no additional state capital will be needed for the first phase of construction because the university shares space at Polk State College and the Florida Industrial and Phosphate Research Institute.
Reach Jim Turner at email@example.com or at (772) 215-9889.