As more than 6,000 students received their degrees from the University of South Florida this weekend, school officials were urging the Tampa Bay area community to call Florida lawmakers who made a last-minute change to the qualifications for universities to receive "preeminence status."
It's a move that stands to take away more than $10 million from USF.
“It is important that our state leaders fully understand the effects of arbitrary changes to our Preeminence goals and metrics,” said USF Board of Trustees Chair Brian Lamb, who is among those reaching out to business leaders, alumni and others on social media this weekend to try and change lawmakers minds before Monday's final vote.
— USF (@USouthFlorida) May 6, 2017
“Shifting the goal posts at the endgame impacts the resources and facilities of USF’s students, our ability to attract the best and brightest to our university and city, the success of the Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Institute in downtown Tampa, and the economic growth and competitiveness of our region,” Lamb said.
Since 2013, schools in the State University System that achieve "preeminence" or "emerging preeminence" status get millions in additional state money.
Lawmakers use the title to highlight Florida’s public universities’ research efforts on a national and worldwide stage. Schools need to reach 11 of 12 specific metrics to attain "preeminent status," and so far, only the University of Florida and Florida State University have done so.
Schools reaching six of the metrics qualified at the level of "emerging preeminence." USF attained nine of those levels last year, and the University of Central Florida achieved "emerging preeminence" status that year as well.
The Board of Governors measures the institutions in areas such as student quality and student success (including graduation rates and freshman retention), faculty quality and post-doctoral support, research productivity, endowment/private funding and some national rankings.
In January, the Florida Senate proposed lowering one of the bars for preeminence -- changing the necessary graduation rate metric from having at least 70 percent of students graduating within six years of enrollment to at least 50 percent within four years. USF's most recent graduation rate was 54 percent -- guaranteeing its chance to reach preeminence.
However, late Friday afternoon, as the 2017 legislative session came to a close, lawmakers proposed boosting the proposed graduation rate to at least 60 percent within four years. USF officials think the decision will delay the school from attaining preeminent status for three years.
On Saturday, between commencement ceremonies in Tampa, USF Provost Ralph Wilcox called the move shocking and unexpected.
"Fifty percent had been set as an appropriate level for preeminent performance since January. No one's questioned that in committee. It's moved through both the Senate and the House," Wilcox said. "We have been diligently following the guidelines set by the Board of Governors in their 2025 Strategic Plan. The target four year graduation rate for the State University System is set at 50 percent, in much the same way that the current preeminence six year graduation rate is set at 70 percent, consistent with the Strategic Plan."
"We received no notification, and frankly, I think you'd be hard pressed to find anyone in the USF community, or frankly the broader Tampa Bay community, to accept any explanation other than this was introduced simply to deny the hard-earned designation of preeminence to the University of South Florida," he added.
Senate President Joe Negron (R-Stuart) told the Times/Herald that USF was mistaken in believing it was going to qualify for preeminence.
"The mistake by some at the University of South Florida was assuming that the Legislature would adopt the 50 percent graduate rate to be immediately applied retroactively," Negron said. "As everyone knows, legislation is changed throughout session."
Schools with preeminence status are expected to split $48 million in funding this coming year. If USF doesn't reach that bar, UF and FSU would get $24 million each instead of $16 million if USF were included. If USF retains its emerging preeminence status, it will receive somewhere around the $5 million it received in last year's budget.
University officials on Saturday were using Twitter and Facebook to rally supporters, asking people to contact their local lawmakers immediately to ask them to change the bill to include USF. An email was also sent to alumni urging action.
At the last minute, the legislature is planning to make a change -- taking away millions of dollars of funding for USF meeting Preeminent University metrics. This late change excludes SOLELY the University of South Florida from qualifying for preeminence AFTER the Board of Governors had certified USF met the necessary criteria that had been in the proposed language since January. This change also will badly hurt our downtown Tampa medical school and heart institute as well as other USF Colleges.
Wilcox added that the concern isn't limited to the effect the change has on USF's academic standing this year.
He's also worried that lawmakers could change the achievement targets whenever they want and keep any public university other than the University of Florida or Florida State University from attaining preeminent status.
"The broader concern though, I think now, is the confidence that has been shaken within the University of South Florida community, across Tampa Bay, and I'm quite sure across the State University System, that one can have little confidence anymore that the goalposts aren't going to change from year to year, and that frankly there are those in Tallahassee that don't see the opportunity for any universities that are younger than one hundred years old ever being given the opportunity to earn, rightly earn their position as a preeminent institution," Wilcox said.
Negron pointed out that USF is receiving $42 million in the new state budget for operating and construction funds, including $12 million for the downtown medical school and another $3.1 for a new residence hall at USF St. Petersburg.
Negron also told the Times/Herald that if Gov. Rick Scott vetoes the conforming bill, the current regulations would stay in place, which means USF would still remain as an emerging preeminent university.
Among those jumping in to support USF were students, USF Athletic Director Mark Harlan, former Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford of Pasco County, and Mark Sharpe, a former Hillsborough County commissioner.
— Will Weatherford (@willweatherford) May 6, 2017
— Mark Sharpe (@MarkSharpeFL) May 6, 2017
The University has set up a webpage for people looking for more information.