by Mike Vogel
Updated 2 months ago
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.”
The team she assembled shares similar stories. Pete Karamitsanis, an architect who oversees design and construction of the university, talks of the entire staff running on a few hours of sleep, dealing with emails coming in at “2 in the morning, 3 in the morning, 5 in the morning,” he says.
The legislation creating Florida Poly mandated milestones and mission — a focus on STEM, an opening by fall 2014 — but left implementation to the university. The board and Parker turned to UF, which it hired to provide back-office services. (It paid UF $2 million this year for its services.) They also turned to Florida Gulf Coast University, the last public university founded in Florida. Created by the Legislature in 1991, it opened six years later on Fort Myers land donated by Ben Hill Griffin III and Alico, the ag company Alexander later headed.
Florida Poly emulated Florida Gulf Coast’s policy of no tenure for faculty. That practice hasn’t dissuaded applicants, Parker says. Florida Poly received 1,300 resumes for 30 full-time faculty positions and 20 adjunct positions. Including faculty, the university employs 69.
There will be only a limited traditional library. Parker says technology allows students to build a personalized digital library. The relatively smaller space the university will inherit from USF at Polk State can house needed print books and periodicals, she says.
Florida Poly settled on 19 concentrations in six majors. Parker acknowledges that majors such as electrical engineering, computer science and mechanical engineering sound the same as what’s already offered in the State University System. But, she says, Poly has selected concentrations that are not saturated by existing universities and are in demand by industry. That said, several sound familiar to other Florida university offerings, including cybergaming, cybersecurity and big data analytics. The university also will focus on applied, not theoretical, research.
To get a dorm opened in time for August, the university brought in Jacksonville-based apartment developer Vestcor to build and manage a 219-bed all-suite facility. Rates, without board, run from $7,430 to $8,100 depending on the suite layout. Vestcor pays the university a share of net cash flow from the building and annual payments on a 50-year land lease.
The new university’s board thought of asking for another $25 EDUCATION HIGHER REPORT million from the Legislature to cover construction shortfalls after receiving a $22 million allocation but it set off a storm, and Parker said the school didn’t need it. The project so far, including constructing Calatrava’s building and equipping it, campus site work and engineering cost $134 million.
“She understands the state legislators; she understands the Board of Governors because she was one of them. She’s been able to navigate this huge challenge and get us open, open on time,” says Scott Rhodes, executive director of enrollment services.
Rhodes’ job illustrates one difficulty in starting with a blank slate. Campus visits are important to wooing students, but “we couldn’t have an open house on campus. We didn’t have a campus,” Rhodes says. A multi-purpose building quickly went up, opening in November, to serve as an admissions center. Prospects and parents donned purple hard hats and vests — the school color is purple — to tour the site of Calatrava’s underconstruction Innovation, Science & Technology building.
To see what they were getting into still took imagination. When it opens, Florida Poly will have just 500 students — fewer students than at most high schools, fewer than 793-student New College in Sarasota (the next smallest State University System institution) and fewer even than the number living in UF’s honors dorm.
Even by 2024, the Lakeland campus where USF envisioned 16,000 students will house just 5,000 undergrad and grad students. The first students will arrive at a college with, initially, no sports and no accreditation, which means no federal Pell grants for those in need, nor work-study, nor federal loans. To address that, the Poly board offered $5,000 annual scholarships — just $29 less than annual tuition and fees — for the first three years, dropping to $3,200 in the fourth year when accreditation presumably will have been earned and federal funds flow. Raising that scholarship money fell to another startup, the Florida Poly foundation, chaired by Alexander’s wife, Cindy.
With the scholarship offers to dangle, Rhodes’ five-counselor admissions staff hit the road from August to Thanksgiving to visit 200 high schools and community colleges in the state to sell Florida Poly, aiming initially to attract 250 freshmen and 250 transfer students. The university also paid Lakelandbased Indie Atlantic Films $50,000 to $60,000 to create a 32-minute movie about Poly. (The number isn’t exact because the movie came from a larger contract to create several promotional spots of varying length.) Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, approximately 900 people around Florida attended “Poly Premiere” showings, complete with purple carpet and purple velvet ropes, at schools and theaters. The gimmick worked. Students, parents and guidance counselors watched a history of Ponce De Leon, Disney and the space program that then settled on Poly as an extension of discovery and innovation. Viewers also saw Parker, other Florida Poly officials, an Apple exec and industry representatives bang the innovation, industry involvement and jobs and employability drums. In the debate on whether college is for job preparation or something else, there’s no debate at Florida Poly: It’s all about jobs, and the school has developed partnerships with a number of businesses, including Harris Corp., DSM Technology Consultants, Bright House Networks and ASI Chemical that are offering internships or other workrelated experience to Poly students.
In all, 3,000 students applied. Says Rhodes, “I know there are the people out there (talking) about the polytechnic and questioning the need. Well, I think the market has spoken.” Poly admitted 923 of the 3,000 and, as of early May, 500 committed. Only about 100 wound up being transfers. Too many transfer applicants had an associate of arts background that was too weak in math to graduate in two years, Rhodes says.
Some 95% of students are Floridians. Many of the remaining 5% have parents or grandparents with a home here. Polk and Hillsborough counties supply 25% of the student body, with the next largest markets being Broward, Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and Pinellas followed by Orange. For commuter students, the free tuition combined with Bright Futures aid made Florida Poly a deal. Student financial demographics won’t be available until the fall when incoming student surveys are completed. A goal of recruiting 20 grad students is on target. They also get scholar ships, plus the opportunity to get stipends as resident assistants and teaching assistants.
Rhodes is encouraged that Poly has had 6,500 inquiries for 2015 from students at all levels. He added a second tour time on Saturdays to accommodate demand.
With the first class locked up and things on schedule for an August opening, Florida Poly has reached a milestone. The school still has to apply for and win accreditation by 2016 or students risk being graduates of a non-accredited institution. The school also has to determine scholarships for the fall classes of 2015 and 2016, for whom a lack of federal aid will continue to be an issue. A new campus master plan is in the works. Rhodes is under pressure to increase the number of higher revenue out-of-state students but says Florida Poly must “own your back yard first.”
The university can’t admit international students until it enrolls its first class and wins federal government approval. Renown for research will take ages, as will proving that the Orlando-Tampa tech corridor is in fact a corridor rather than a barbell with two research hubs connected by I-4.
How long Parker will stay with Florida Poly isn’t clear. She didn’t apply for the president’s job, and her status, once her contract expires in December, is up to new President Randy Avent. Avent was hired in April from North Carolina State University where he was associate vice chancellor of research development, a computer science professor and founding director of the university’s Data Science Institute. The board approved a salary range of $310,750 to $550,000.
The fledgling university still must overcome perceptions that it would have been more efficient to expand capacity at an existing university rather than start a new one. “Now we’ve got another university to feed,” says Sean Snaith, director of the Institute for Economic Competitiveness at the University of Central Florida. “Could this have been done more efficiently through the existing system?”
Parker is confident legislators will support Florida Poly without Alexander there to ensure it. Polk County’s delegation includes state Rep. Seth McKeel, House appropriations committee chair and joint budget commission chair. His sister is Maggie Mariucci, Florida Poly’s director of external affairs.
Parker also is confident legislators will come to see “we’ve built a different model and something that is a complement to the system and something that is not just going to benefit this region but will in fact benefit the whole state of Florida. They’ve ensured we have the opportunity, and I think the next step in this is that we will perform.”
‘Unique and Different’
As an August opening approaches for Florida Polytechnic University, its de facto creator sees vindication. “It’ll be an institution that’s unique in the state, following a model that’s been successful in other parts of the country and the world,” says former state Sen. J.D. Alexander, a Lake Wales Republican who muscled the state’s 12th university into being as chair of the Senate Budget Committee before he was term-limited out of the Senate in 2013. “In a few years, you probably won’t fnd anyone admit that they opposed it.”
Alexander says he came gradually to the idea that the Lakeland campus of the University of South Florida should be a standalone university. He says he became convinced of the need after years of watching USF neglect its stewardship of the campus. The “last straw” came, he says, when USF told a donor who wanted to fund a program at the Lakeland campus to redirect the money to the main campus in Tampa or go away. He says the only way for USF Lakeland to achieve its potential and to fulfll his commitment to his district was to see the university become independent of USF.
Alexander says naysayers who predicted the project would fail to draw students and faculty and be a budget-buster have been proven wrong. “The things they said couldn’t be done are being done. As far as can the state afford it? I don’t think we can afford not to do it,” he says.
Florida Poly will beneft students and diversify the state economy by bringing applied research and a pool of workready STEM graduates, Alexander says. Such institutions in California, New York and other states lead to tech industries developing around them, he says. “This institution is unique and different, and that’s why it was created,” Alexander says. “Except for New College, all the rest (of the state universities) are University of Florida wanna-bes.”
Alexander, now in private business, didn’t apply to be the school’s president. His wife, Cindy, chairs its foundation board. “I don’t have a role,” he says. “I just keep advocating in the state and the community for the effort. I think our state needs it. I think it will be successful.”
Florida Polytechnic's unique archtecture
Designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, Florida Polytechnic’s first building features movable louvers and an abundant use of natural light. Second-floor faculty and administrative offices feature glass walls on the terrace and interior side. Offices are small by design to encourage faculty to get out of them. “The whole idea is interaction and collaboration,” says Pete Karamitsanis (right), an architect and Florida Poly’s representative on construction. Chrysler liked the innovative design so much it filmed a Dodge pickup truck commercial at the site.