With the goal of becoming one of the top public-research institutions in the country, the University of South Florida is being guided by a plan to hire 300 new faculty members over the next five years.
The plan would reduce the student-to-faculty ratio on the Tampa campus from the current 22 students per instructor to a 19-to-1 ratio. The move could help the school increase research funding, attract more top-quality faculty and help students graduate more quickly with degrees in high-demand professions.
Ralph Wilcox, USF provost and executive vice president, outlined the plan this month before the USF Board of Trustees' Strategic Initiatives Committee. The plan calls for hiring 250 full-time faculty for undergraduate programs and another 50 faculty for targeted research in the Morsani College of Medicine.
After university leaders were disappointed by recent legislative decisions that delayed USF's elevation to a designation as one of Florida's preeminent universities, the faculty hires over the next five years will help the school meet that goal, but more ambitiously it is aimed at increasing the school's national standing, Wilcox said.
Wilcox said the plan was developed by measuring USF's current student-to-faculty ratio against the 34 public university members of the prestigious Association of American Universities. The University of Florida is the only Florida state school that has AAU membership.
Under that measure, USF is comparing itself to schools like the University of Michigan, which reported a 15-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio in the fall of 2016.
“We come in at the bottom of the heap, as it were, in student-faculty ratio (in the AAU comparison),” Wilcox said. “We have to improve that for the sake of our students, for the sake of the research contributions we make to our community and to the state and to enhance our reputation as a destination public research university.”
USF already compares favorably to its major public-university peers in Florida. Based on fall 2015 data, when USF had a 24-to-1 ratio, only the University of Florida had a lower ratio, at 21-to-1.
Florida Atlantic University was at 24-to-1, followed by Florida State University and Florida International University, at 25-to-1, and the University of Central Florida, the largest school in the system, at 30-to-1, according to Wilcox's report.
As part of the strategy, Wilcox said USF is limiting its enrollment growth, with about 42,000 students on its Tampa campus, including 11,000 graduate students.
“We have no interest in growing because in doing so we have discovered that it is very, very difficult to maintain delivery of a world-class education at the University of South Florida without additional investment beyond the incremental revenue from tuition that we would receive,” Wilcox said.
There are some exceptions. He said USF wants to continue to expand enrollment in its College of Nursing, because of the high demand for graduates. The plan targets eight new faculty members for that college, with the hiring expected to maintain the current 19-to-1 ratio for the program.
The faculty hires are in targeted areas, like engineering and medical research, and are expected to enhance USF's ability to attract research funding. USF, with $515 million in research spending in the 2015-16 academic year, trailed only the University of Florida, with $791 million, according to state Board of Governors' data.
Wilcox said USF leads the state system in the ratio of research spending per full-time faculty members, saying each new hire, on average, is expected to generate nearly $500,000 in annual research funding. The plan projects USF's research spending will exceed more than $600 million a year by 2022.
“You can see what sort of impact that is going to have on research investments at the university, which supports more doctoral students, supports more undergraduate research experience and generates novel solutions to complex problems that plague us in the world today,” Wilcox said.
The plan also details areas where USF needs to more dramatically improve its student-to-faculty ratios. For instance, USF wants to hire 102 new faculty for the College of Engineering, reducing class sizes from 34 to 20 students.
The plan would provide 54 new faculty for the Muma College of Business, reducing class sizes from 45 students to 29.
The faculty hires over five years carry an estimated price tag of about $388 million, including $50 million in salaries and benefits and $63 million in “start-up” costs for the faculty researchers.
“When they move they want to make sure that it can be a seamless transition of their research teams,” Wilcox said, referring to recruiting top-level researchers across the country.
The cost includes $275 million related to new or renovated facilities to accommodate the faculty growth. Wilcox said that is ambitious and not likely to be fully funded out of traditional sources like the state's annual Public Education Capital Outlay program. But he said the plan contemplates other measures, including leasing facilities or entering public-private partnerships.
Many aspects of the plan dovetail with new state university initiatives and funding approved by the 2017 Legislature, although the state budget awaits final approval by Gov. Rick Scott.
Under those initiatives, USF can expect to receive higher performance-based funding, eventually preeminence funding and money from new programs like the “world-class scholars,” which will distribute $70 million to the 12 universities in the coming year.
As for the “return on investment” from the faculty expansion, Wilcox's report projects the moves will increase the four-year graduation rate for USF students to 64 percent, up from 54 percent, will increase the freshman retention rate to 93 percent and result in an increase in annual doctoral degrees to 750.
Wilcox said those improvements will help USF meet or exceed standards set by the state, like the performance-based funding measures, or by national groups like the AAU.
“All we can do is meet or exceed the bar in all of these metrics and tell our story, or better still let our students, our graduates and our professors tell the story,” Wilcox said.