On Monday, University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft sent a letter to faculty and staff announcing a new direction - a "path to preeminence" - that aims at bringing the school into "the ranks of America's most elite universities in the next few years."
It's more than just a phrase. Schools in the State University System that achieve "preeminence" or "emerging preeminence" get additional funding from the Florida Legislature.
But what do these statuses actually mean?
USF Provost Ralph Wilcox said that lawmakers wanted to highlight Florida’s public universities’ research efforts on a national and worldwide stage, so, in 2013, they identified twelve metrics, including student quality and student success (including graduation and freshman retention), faculty quality and post-doctoral support, research productivity, endowment/private funding and national rankings in some of these categories.
So after the twelve schools of the State University System were graded on these metrics, only two made the grade of ‘preeminent status’ – that is, they met or surpassed thresholds in at least eleven of the metrics – the University of Florida and Florida State University. That left a number of schools out.
“Between 2013 and 2016, what I think became apparent to our elected officials is that there was really no way to recognize or acknowledge those maturing research universities that were on the pathway to preeminence,” Wilcox said.
So, earlier this year, Florida lawmakers passed a bill that Gov. Rick Scott signed into law, setting up the category of “emerging preeminence.” To achieve that level, a school had to meet or exceed six of those metrics. This year, two schools did that – the University of South Florida and the University of Central Florida.
Reaching this level will mean pay a financial benefit for both universities.
“In this legislative session, for instance, $10 million was appropriated to each of the ‘preeminent’ institutions (UF and FSU) and $5 million each in new, recurring funding for the ‘emerging preeminent’ institutions, which we fully intend to invest in a very focused and disciplined and strategic fashion,” Wilcox said.
The Florida Board of Governors has to first approve USF and UCF’s statuses later this year, perhaps as early as its June meeting.
But Wilcox pointed out that it’s a very clear pathway as USF expects to exceed nine of the metrics, and could be up to the ‘preeminent’ level of eleven within the next few years.
In her letter to staff and faculty, Genshaft said: "The time is right to redouble our efforts, with our sights clearly set on reaching full Florida Preeminence and the ranks of America's most elite universities in the next few years."
She added that the school is planning a series of innovations in conjunction with the effort, including strategic investments in areas of impact, a greater focus on metrics needed to attain both preeminence and membership in the Association of American Universities (AAU), and realignment of some administrative functions.
USF’S efforts are getting other forms of attention from Tallahassee, as one of the state’s most powerful lawmakers recently stopped by for a visit.
Incoming Florida Senate President Joe Negron and other legislators came to the Tampa campus April 20, during a week-long tour of the State University System. They met students and alumni who showed off research and products they developed through their education at USF.
"I’m very impressed with what they're doing at USF," Negron said. "They actually have the lowest admission rate and they're the most competitive university in Florida in terms of admissions. They also are second in funding for research, almost a half a billion dollars, so great things are happening at this university and what we're here to learn and what we've learned a lot about today is how we can help the university get to that preeminent level."
Negron, who is slated to become Senate President in November, also sat down with USF officials to discuss his plans to increase spending for Florida’s universities by $1 billion over the next two years.
"My goal is that we'll have national, elite destination universities in Florida that can compete with the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, University of Virginia, University of Michigan, agreed up on national, destination public universities," Negron said. "And so I think we have a chance to make a big difference in that area."
And USF very much wants to be one of those schools.
“We’re very much committed to Senator Negron’s vision," Wilcox said. "It aligns very, very well with the University of South Florida’s plan or pathway to preeminence and continued growth.”
Negron also spoke to students, who told him about the challenges they and their families face paying for college, with many of them working part-time jobs while taking full class loads.
"I hope that he does take to heart what we're saying and understand the situation that myself and many other students are in in regards to affording tuition and rent and general living," said mechanical engineering senior Carey Whitehair.
For his part, Negron felt it's necessary to meet with the people affected by lawmakers' actions.
"I think it's important, as policymakers, that we know what we're talking about and that we're on the ground talking to students, to faculty, to parents, to members of the community, to board of trustee members, to really learn what the facts are and then we can make good decisions," Negron said.