Consolidation unifies USF experience across Tampa, St. Pete, Sarasota-Manatee campuses

On July 1, University of South Florida officially merged the three campuses at Tampa, St. Pete, and Sarasota-Manatee into one unified institution.

This historic consolidation marks a new era for USF, capping a decade as one of the fastest-growing, top-tier research universities in the U.S. during the tenure of former President Judy Genshaft. Now, USF looks at new opportunities as it continues to grow led by President Steven Currall. 

On paper, consolidation means the three USF campuses -- which previously operated as separately accredited institutions -- have merged into one university under a single accreditation, as recognized by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS). 

Tim Boaz, USF Faculty Senate PresidentIn practice, consolidation means change and challenge will go hand-in-hand as faculty, students, and administrators adjust to the unified system. Proponents say they are optimistic about the school's long-term vision and trajectory.

"In the past we were, to a certain extent, competing with one another -- for funding from the state Legislature; for the loyalty of people in our community. With all three [campuses] combined and working together, we've reduced that competition and become larger -- which will help us in terms of relationships with alumni, potential donors, and the state Legislature,” notes USF Faculty Senate President Dr. Tim Boaz, an Associate Professor in the Department of Mental Health Law and Policy.

Enhanced access to education, support, services, and opportunity

"From the student perspective, they may not see much difference in how USF operates. In part that's deliberate, in that we did our best as we were planning this to create one seamless experience that incorporates the St. Pete and Sarasota-Manatee campuses into our student success movement," says Dr. Paul Dosal, VP of Student Affairs and Student Success and a Professor of Latin American History specializing in the modern history of Cuba and the Caribbean region.

Paul Dosal, USF VP for Student Affairs and Student Success"We want to emphasize that consolidation means they have access to more professors, more services, and more events and activities than they had before." 

Dosal notes that while students will still be designated a home campus, under the consolidation, each student now has access to every service available across three campuses. This includes financial aid and career counseling, mental health services, recreational facilities, and intramural team sports. Prior to the consolidation, a student enrolled, for instance, on the Sarasota-Manatee campus was not eligible to join a sports team based at USF Tampa or St. Pete -- but now, all Bulls fall under the same umbrella.

Before the merger, each separately accredited campus also had its own academic programs, coursework, and requirements. Student Body President Claire Mitchell says one of the primary concerns voiced by her constituency is how the consolidation might affect the classroom experience. 

"Having to streamline coursework across all three campuses -- the way that looks at individual campuses would change, so there were questions about how it would work with students' education styles," Mitchell says.

Streamlining the classroom experience across three institutions is no small task, Faculty Senate President Boaz notes. The university aims, in the process, to not only to satisfy SACS accreditation requirements but manage students' anxieties about their classroom experience. 

"When you have three separate programs in -- let's say, Psychology -- that have evolved independently over the last two decades, they start looking different. Each has different requirements and expectations of students, and different lineups of courses. We had to go through all those curricula to get them on the same page because SACS accreditation requires that if we have a Psych program, it has to be the same everywhere in the university," he says.

While some faculty express concerns about a cumbersome curricular overhaul, students who are currently enrolled in courses will not be affected by the changes.

"We have a transition period for students that are currently, as of prior to July 1, enrolled in a program on a particular campus. We will have to follow through and continue to teach out that program before we are able to have our consolidated curricula for these overlapping programs fully in place," Boaz says.

Recognizing room for improvement

Dr. Steve Lang, Professor and Senate Faculty Member at USFSP, serves as VP of USF's faculty union. He notes, as does Dr. Boaz, that some critical issues surrounding the impact of consolidation on USF faculty -- namely, salary discrepancies across three campuses -- will take time to resolve. 

Steve Lang, USF Senate Faculty Member representing USFSP"If you were hired at USF St. Pete or Sarasota-Manatee recently, and if you were hired with some of their independent budget money -- you may actually make more than somebody in Tampa. However, if you were hired like I was several years ago, separate accreditation has probably meant our salaries are eroded," explains Lang, who specializes in the assessment of teacher performance.

"I know the administration is aware of it and the union is aware of it -- but it's not something they'll be able to wave a magic wand on July 1 and remedy. The Provost and President and people involved in these things will have to take some time to deal with that -- but in the meantime, it frustrates people who, understandably, don't want to be teaching the same courses as someone on a different campus, and writing the same grants, but making less money."

Faculty Senate President Boaz acknowledges that historically, the Tampa campus has advantages over the USFSP and Sarasota-Manatee campuses -- both in salaries and funding.  

"Currently, they [USFSP and Sarasota-Manatee] have significantly less support for research and higher expectations for instructional activities. For those programs that span campuses, there will be work to do to get things ironed out so that everybody is being treated fairly," Boaz says.

Lang says the current faculty union contract expires in August, and that the bargaining process for a new one is underway -- but is complicated by COVID-19.

"It's difficult because we can't get in a room together and float ideas. We're having conversations across three campuses using Microsoft Teams and Zoom to do what we can -- and we are certainly aware of the issues faculty are bringing up," Lang says. 

"On some issues, I'm a bit calmer than some of the others -- I think it's because I have the ability to look back over 30 years at USF, so I'm not panicked. But my overall view is that we have a long way to go. The legal deadline for consolidation is July 1, but I think it's going to take a year or two for individual programs to sort out."

Governing through transition and pandemic

USF Tampa undergrad Claire Mitchell was elected this spring as the first Student Body President overseeing three campuses. Newly formed governor roles now report to her from the St. Pete and Sarasota-Manatee campuses. 

Claire Mitchell, USF Student Body PresidentMitchell's predecessors, the former Student Body Presidents from each campus and their Senators and Chief Justices, began the process of restructuring the student government and rewriting its constitution last year.

"Last year's leadership did the brunt of the work, but I was involved in the latter half of the process -- and we'd be in meetings for hours. We'd start with the USF Tampa statutes and go through them line by line, comparing them to the other two campuses'. It was important to see where they aligned, if there were differences, and what adjustments were needed to become more collaborative," Mitchell recalls.

Mitchell is the first President to govern virtually, as her inauguration coincides with the coronavirus pandemic. She notes that her executive branch and the legislative branch hold frequent video conference calls between members throughout a full-time week of governing, using Microsoft Teams -- but most of this newly formed tri-campus student government has yet to meet in person. 

Despite the distance, they're working to develop a system-wide advisory task force that can access and address the thoughts and opinions of students across all pockets of USF. Regarding students' concerns about the consolidation, Mitchell says the desire to maintain the unique identities of each campus is among the highest.

"St. Pete is very green and environmentally friendly. In Sarasota-Manatee, you have a lot of commuters, and then Tampa has the most on-campus residences. The culture is very different at each school, so maintaining those identities is a major challenge. They're unique and special for a reason, and we want to make sure that remains the case," Mitchell says.

Racial equity is also a primary focus for the first USF student government to span three campuses. 

"There's a lot of new movement centered around Black Lives Matter," says Mitchell. 

"We're looking at: How can we expand the Office of Multicultural Affairs? How can we create a Black Student Life Center? Our primary focus is having more spaces for our Black communities, but there's also the expansion of Gen Ed requirements to include more anti-bias training and anti-discrimination coursework."

Dosal, from the Office for Student Success, notes that every change and initiative put in place by the USF Student Government throughout the consolidation process has been almost entirely student-led -- a promising look at what USF might achieve as one accredited institution that spans three cities. 

"There are people who are committed to the previous mission and vision, and they raise valid concerns about a transition into a Research I university -- which is fast-growing, and on the rise both nationally and internationally," Dosal says. 

"Expectations for faculty, students, and staff will necessarily change to reflect that new mission. That won't be easy. There will be partners and friends in our community who will share concerns. We can't ignore those. We need to have serious conversations about them. But overall, I see more positives for all students of the Tampa Bay Area to have access to the preeminent university USF has become."

For more information: USF News
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Jessi Smith.

Jessi Smith (she/they) is a freelance writer who is passionate about sustainability, community building, and the power of the arts and transformative storytelling. A fourth-generation Floridian, Jessi received her B.A. in Art History and English from Florida International University and began reporting for 83 Degrees in 2009. When she isn't writing, Jessi enjoys taking her deaf rescue dog on outdoors adventures, unearthing treasures in backroads antiques and thrift shops, D.I.Y. upcycling projects, and Florida-friendly gardening.