Florida Polytechnic survives controversy to enroll its first STEM students

Zachary Weingarten knew right away that Florida Polytechnic University was the school for him.

As a member of his high school robotics team and creator of a money-making tech website, the Broward County teen was thrilled to hear about a state university focused entirely on science, technology, math and engineering, the hot curriculum known as STEM.

His parents weren’t such an easy sell. Shown the school’s website, they saw it was such an exact match for their son, they thought he’d concocted it as an elaborate joke.

Today, Weingarten is one of the 550 students ready to put their mark on the new university, which begins classes Monday.

“You have a once-in-a-life opportunity,” director of student affairs Steve Warner told them during a welcome session last week, as sunlight poured in from the dramatic skylights in Florida Poly’s iconic main building.

“You took the risk, you took the chance, you believed in what we are doing,” Warner said.

That was no opening day hyperbole. These students are indeed making a leap.

Florida Poly defied its doubters by managing to open for business just two years after its controversial creation by the state Legislature. Rising from a former cow pasture miles from downtown Lakeland, it is wowing visits with its extraordinary architecture and ambitious vision.

Yet Florida Poly is far from certain success.

The next test: Winning the official accreditation that is crucial to any higher education institution. Then comes even higher hurdles — retaining students lured by generous but temporary scholarships long enough to graduate. And then seeing whether they can win the high-skill, high-wage jobs they have been promised.

The ultimate, long-term test: Proving Florida Polytechnic University worthy of the millions taxpayers are pouring into it.

Birth of a university

Like most of his fellow students, Weingarten, 18, spent the summer connecting with classmates in Facebook groups and Skype calls. He says he has even found new best friends.

His parents, though, heard skepticism from relatives.

“It’s a new school; you don’t know anything about it,” was the sort of warning that his father, Adam Weingarten, fielded.

Abby Weingarten worried about her son attending a school that won’t be accredited until 2016 at the earliest. She learned that Florida’s public universities generally have no problems gaining accreditation, but it was still a concern — with reason.

Students won’t be eligible for federal financial aid until the school is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools like Florida’s other state colleges and universities. Without accreditation, degrees from Florida Poly will be considered worthless.

Zachary never doubted.

“The fact that it was all science and engineering, it was really what I was looking for,” he said Friday.

Whatever family debates have been waged over Florida Poly, they likely pale next to the drama behind its creation.

During the 2012 legislative session, then-state Sen. JD Alexander, who controlled his chamber’s budget-writing process for four years, used his clout to push for a new university in his home district, and to do it fast. He argued that the University of South Florida, which had a Lakeland branch at the time, had ignored calls from him and others to build up its STEM programs there.

Alexander had no interest in objections from the state Board of Governors, worried about another burden on the state’s already-taxed university system. Nor did he give much attention to opposition from USF supporters who realized his plan meant that its Lakeland branch would close.

He wrangled $27 million to launch Florida Poly as a new state university on what had been USF property. It even used architectural designs USF had commissioned.

At the same time, Alexander backed slashing the existing 11 universities’ budgets by $300 million — the fifth consecutive year they absorbed big cuts.

Not all of his fellow lawmakers agreed, but many were hesitant to speak out and lose funding for pet projects of their own.

Last year, with Alexander term-limited out of the Legislature, some were calling for canceling the entire Polytechnic project. The Senate temporarily sliced its $22 million appropriation out of the budget. House Speaker Will Weatherford publicly grumbled that Alexander’s maneuvers had left no option but to approve Poly.

Even Gov. Rick Scott, an enthusiastic STEM education supporter who signed the Polytechnic bill, seemed a bit less enamored of the project. But Poly’s supporters argued there was no sense in turning back — though they decided against seeking an additional $25 million from the state.

Alexander said Friday that the school opening on time, on budget and exceeding first-year admissions goals proves that he was right.

“I just think at the end of the day it is exactly what Florida needed and needs and speaks for itself,” he said.

Mark Bostick, chairman of Florida Poly’s Board of Trustees, said the rancor is now “in the rearview mirror.”

“With the opening of the school and the arrival of students, I think we’re proving that Florida Poly is off and running,” he said. “And even though it’s been fast-tracked, we’ve done it in a very high quality way.”

A campus comes alive

The last time the state launched a brand new public university, Florida Gulf Coast, it took six years from legislative vote to the first day of classes in 1997. Florida Poly did it in two.

As students and parents last week hauled gear into new dormitory suites, workers were still completing the common areas. The elder Weingartens lobbied for a break in the buzzing new cafeteria, but their son was not to be distracted.

Without this new university, Zachary says he likely would have gone to the University of Central Florida. Most Poly students are Florida residents who took advantage of a hard-to-ignore marketing tool: generous scholarships.

Full-time undergraduates receive $5,000 for their first three years, enough to cover in-state tuition and fees. Or, they could stack it on top of other scholarships, like Bright Futures, to help pay for housing and other costs. The fourth year, the scholarship will decrease to $3,200.

“Being a brand new school, we felt like we needed to do that in the beginning until we built a track record on our reputation,” Bostick said.

Beau Cleaves, a freshman from Brandon, combined his scholarship with Bright Futures and a Florida Prepaid savings account.

“I think once we added it up, we’re going to be paying $1,000 a year for college,” he said.

Another lure: a small but state-of-the-art campus centered around the Innovation, Science and Technology Building, visible from Interstate 4. With its swooping lines, the all-white structure has been compared to a spaceship or a giant bug.

Inside architect Santiago Calatrava’s arresting design are classrooms, laboratories, office space and a large virtual library — mainly tables and chairs since the university mostly uses e-books — where students can study or get help with research. There is a supercomputer in one corridor across the hall from a 3D printing lab the school claims is the largest in the country. Students will use it to create new products or model existing ones.

There are six undergraduate majors and two master’s degree programs in engineering and technology. Within the six majors are 19 concentrations ranging from cybersecurity to nanotechnology, or the science of building machines at a subatomic level.

“We’re hitting all the really fast-growing [and] what I call the emerging high-tech areas,” said Florida Poly President Randy Avent, who arrived from North Carolina State University to start his new job July 1.

Joining him are 40 faculty members who hail from academia (including the University of Florida, Florida International University, and California State University, Long Beach), as well as industry (Lockheed Martin and U.S. National Institutes of Standards and Technology).

The road ahead

Colleges and universities nationally have grappled with the problem of retaining students in demanding STEM degree programs. A November study by the U.S. Department of Education showed that 48 percent of undergraduates who chose STEM majors either changed their course of study or dropped out before earning degrees.

At Florida Poly, there are no non-STEM alternatives. To keep from losing students entirely, Poly is trying to provide as much individual attention as possible and hands-on, real-world activities for students to apply theories from the classroom.

How well all this is achieved will be critical once Florida Poly joins other state universities in a model known as performance funding. Graduation rates, how many students get jobs after graduation and the cost of earning a degree all will factor in to how much state money it gets.

The school has started the arduous accreditation process, but the very soonest it can expect a verdict is spring 2016.

State law requires Florida Poly to reach accreditation by December 2016 and have a minimum of 1,244 students at that time.

Avent prefers to think beyond that. New as it is, he’s already talking about Poly in the same breath as venerable institutions such as California Polytechnic State University, Stevens Institute of Technology in New York and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York.

Bostick said he’s running into people in Polk County with even loftier ambitions, referring to world-leader Massachusetts Institute of Technology in calling Poly “Florida’s MIT.”

“And I say, 'Well, if we do it right, yes, it will be,’ ” he said.