July 30, 2015
It's prime time for Florida's newest public university: Florida Polytechnic

Photo: Alex McKnight

Designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, Florida Polytechnic's first building features movable louvers and an abundant use of natural light.

Higher Education in Florida

It's prime time for Florida's newest public university: Florida Polytechnic

Mike Vogel | 5/28/2014

Florida’s newest public university opens for its first class of students in two months.

Abutting I-4 in the hinterlands between Orlando and Tampa stands an incongruous building of latticed white arches and gleaming white wings evocative of a bird in flight. It’s the startlingly futuristic signature building of Florida Polytechnic, the state’s newest public university.

It welcomes its first class in August, just two years after its creation. As of April — four months before opening — the interior of the building still was a scene of piled cable, unfinished spaces and hard hats. The first dorm hadn’t gotten even that far, with only a frame standing. The building where students will be fed in August wasn’t even under way.

The fast track wasn’t always so fast for what was once just a branch of the University of South Florida. That USF branch roomed for years with Polk State College in Lakeland, as the university planned a 16,000-student campus off I-4 on land donated by Tulsa, Okla., energy company Williams Co. (In a familiar strategy for such donors, Williams gave the land and hopes it spurs development of 2,500 acres it owns around the campus.)

But a powerful legislator, J.D. Alexander, scion of legendary Florida business and governmental leader, Ben Hill Griffin, came to believe that the campus development was going nowhere under the stewardship of its Tampa-based parent [“Unique and Different,” page 56].

Alexander found an ally after 2006 when USF hired as chancellor of the Lakeland campus a career academic administrator, Marshall Goodman, formerly provost at San Jose State in California. Goodman began advocating to put a Caltech in the cow pastures of Polk County, pushing the creation of an independent polytechnic, focused exclusively on science, technology, education and math and applied research.

The controversial Goodman found opponents aplenty. USF agreed in 2011 to spin off the polytechnic over several years, but Goodman’s world travels on university foundation funds drew scrutiny, as did the purchase of life-sized Star Wars statues for $10,000. He lost a faculty no-confidence vote and was shown the door by USF President Judy Genshaft.

Alexander, chairman of the state Senate Budget Committee, didn’t back off, however, applying his considerable political influence to accelerate a spinoff. A few months after Goodman left, Alexander in 2012 succeeded in creating Florida’s 12th public university. The state’s Board of Governors, which had opposed the move, fell politely on its sword, and Gov. Rick Scott signed off on the move amid criticism that he’d abandoned his pledge to make the state more fiscally frugal.

USF kept its faculty and students and, temporarily, its digs with Polk State but turned over to the new university 172 acres, a separate 180-acre site and a similar sized wetlands area and the signature building project, which had been commissioned under Goodman. Looking to make a visual splash, Goodman had hired Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava to create the eye-popping design for the building and a similarly striking plan for the whole campus. The Star Wars statues went into storage.

Beyond the land and building, though, Poly was nothing. The new university’s board of trustees chair Robert Gidel, managing partner of an Orlando commercial mortgage advisory firm, and his board asked Jacksonville lawyer Ava Parker to become Poly’s chief operating officer, its top executive until a president could be hired.

A University of Florida journalism and law school grad, Parker knows her way around the state, the Legislature and, especially, higher education. She chaired the State University System Board of Governors for two years and served a total of 10 years under Govs. Jeb Bush, Charlie Crist and Scott. She was a charter member of the board of trustees at the University of Central Florida and general counsel at Edward Waters, a historically black college in Jacksonville. Her background also includes mass transit, IT development and workforce issues.

Parker had an irresistible skill set but initially hesitated, wary of Poly’s contentious creation and a job with no playbook. She joined anyway in December 2012, making $276,000 per year. On arrival, she found a staff of four and two consultants.

“I don’t think I had a good sense of how much it would consume me,” she says. “You come into this treating it as a startup business. You never stop thinking about it. You find yourself up in the middle of the night thinking about things we have to put in place in order for it to be successful.”

Tags: Education, Higher Education

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