The University of South Florida opened its satellite campus in Lakeland in 1988. University of South Florida Polytechnic initially shared its grounds with the Lakeland campus of Polk Community College (now Polk State College). By the 2000s it had grown to enroll over 2,000 students, and the school's backers secured state funding for a separate campus, eventually choosing a site near Interstate 4. In 2009 Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava was selected to design the campus' first building.
Meanwhile, the institution's backers, most prominently Florida State SenatorJD Alexander, initiated a campaign to break USF Polytechnic away from USF and form an independent university. In 2011, Alexander proposed a 2012-13 state budget that provided $33 million for the move. Like the acquisition of the new campus, the proposed split was controversial in some quarters, as it came during a tight budget year and was unpopular with USF students and faculty. In response to Alexander's proposal, the Florida Board of Governors approved a multi-year plan to allow USF Polytechnic to gain independence gradually once it met certain criteria, including accreditation, the construction of residence halls, and the development of a STEM curriculum. Displeased with the Board's compromise, Alexander introduced a new budget for the state universities that included immediate independence for USF Polytechnic, effectively bypassing the Board of Governors. On April 20, 2012, Governor Rick Scott signed into law Alexander's budget for the State University System, including the provision that created Florida Polytechnic University as an independent institution, and closed down USF Polytechnic. The law took effect on July 1, 2012.