The students and faculty of USF Polytechnic have a message for lawmakers who want to shut down Poly to create a new university in Polk County.
Wiping out USF Poly will cut a hole in their lives and the Lakeland community.
"This is a successful, vibrant university," said education professor Richard Marshall. "It's unimaginable that anyone would shut down a living, working, successful institution that has met every challenge, done everything it's been asked to do."
About 200 people gathered at the Poly campus on Friday to learn what they could about a bill in the Legislature that would close today's Poly, create a new "Florida Polytechnic University," and transfer all assets to the new school.
Sen. Evelyn Lynn, an Ormond Beach Republican, introduced the measure suddenly last week in her Senate higher education budget committee and it was added to the Senate budget bill on Wednesday. The bill will be heard on the Senate floor next week.
Lynn claimed to be the author but it bears the fingerprints of Sen. JD Alexander, a Lake Wales Republican who has been pushing hard for an independent university in Polk County for several months. He runs the Senate Budget Committee.
Students, staff and faculty members asked on Friday whether the lawmakers understood the consequences of closing Poly.
Alexander has said that no one would be harmed because the bill would enable the students to transfer to the USF Tampa campus to finish their degrees. It would also require USF to take on all Poly faculty and staff.
But it's not that simple, several of them said.
Many Poly students, including dozens from the Avon Park branch, will have a hard time getting to the Tampa campus and finding the night classes they need, they said.
"Our students aren't wealthy. They work, and they can't all drive to Tampa," said Marylou Taylor, an education counseling instructor.
She broke down crying as she talked about them.
"I've got a middle-aged father who brings his baby to class. We've all got students who couldn't go to school at all unless we had this campus. And we're just demolishing that."
USF Polytechnic has about 1,400 students and 348 faculty and staff. More than 60 percent of the students work. More than half of the employees live in Polk County.
The switch would mean the end of Marlene Eplin's graduate work in teaching reading, she said, because she would lose her graduate assistantship. Poly gave her a future, she said.
"I learned how to inspire, how to teach from the heart by teachers who taught me that way. … I love this school, and I want it to continue."
Tension has been high on the campus since Alexander began pushing in July to sever Poly from USF. The state university Board of Governors voted in November to allow the separation once Poly meets benchmarks to show it could stand on its own.
USF would help in the process, but Alexander protested, saying USF hadn't supported Poly in the past and wouldn't follow the board's directive.
He maintained that line and endorsed the new university bill last week, even as USF officials continued working on the directive by submitting a massive application for separate Poly accreditation.
USF President Judy Genshaft angered Alexander when she brought in David Touchton as interim CEO to replace the previous chancellor, Marshall Goodman, an ally in the independence offensive.
Several faculty members, however, point to that day in December as the beginning of what they hoped would be a new phase for the campus.
Now they foresee its destruction.
Said student Suzanne Gaffney, "It's just not right, all the way around."