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USF Joins UF, FSU As Preeminent University

Mark Schreiner
WUSF Public Media
USF officials, led by Provost Ralph Wilcox, first row left, and System President Judy Genshaft, first row third from left, celebrate Thursday in Orlando after a FL Board of Governors committee approved USF as a preeminent university.

During her medallion speech in 2001, University of South Florida System President Judy Genshaft set a goal: get USF on the same level as the state's two flagship schools, the University of Florida and Florida State University.

At 10:59 a.m. Wednesday, that goal finally came to fruition.

It happened when the Florida Board of Governors' Strategic Planning Committee unanimously approved USF's status as a preeminent university during a meeting in Orlando. It's an achievement previously attained by only UF and FSU among the state's 12 public universities.

The full board is set to vote on USF's preeminence Thursday in what's viewed as a mere formality.

"Thank you to the Board of Governors, but broader than that, thank you to the Tampa Bay community -- this means a great, great deal," Genshaft told reporters after Wednesday's vote.

The change in status also means an infusion of funding for USF. Starting with the 2018-19 school year, USF will join UF and FSU in each receiving a little over $6.1 million in annual funding.

The University of Central Florida will receive about $1.7 million as an emerging pre-eminent institution, a distinction USF has held since lawmakers created the level in 2016.

Since Florida legislators and Gov. Rick Scott established preeminence funding in 2013 as a way to lift state universities to national prominence, FSU and UF will have received more than $58 million, including the new funds. USF's total will be just under $20 million.

School officials say the money will be used to continue building USF's academic strength.

"In large part, that means investing in world-class talent, whether best and the brightest faculty from around the world, or the most talented students coming to the University of South Florida and making our university their home," said Wilcox.

USF will use that hiring to try to reduce its student-to-faculty ratio, which is at about 22 to 1.

"We're all about quality," said Genshaft. "It's not growth for the sake of getting bigger -- it's getting better."

Another point of pride that the president pointed to in achieving preeminence is the student population that helped USF reach it -- about 40 percent of the students on USF's Tampa campus receive Pell Grants, a federally-funded, need-based financial aid program. 

By comparison, less than 28 percent of UF's undergrads are Pell recipients.

Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
USF System President looks at students telling stories about their times at the university to members of a FL Board of Governors committee in Orlando Wednesday.

"The population we're dealing with is an urban population, it's very diverse and we're very proud of it," said Genshaft. "These are capable students that, with the right mentoring and the right surroundings, achieve remarkably well."

"We're changing their lives, we're changing the lives of their families, and as a result, we're changing Tampa Bay and the state of Florida in ways that couldn't be imagined years ago," added Wilcox.

The next challenge facing the school is implementing a consolidation plan that brings USF's Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee campuses under one accreditation. That's the result of a law the Florida Legislature passed earlier this year.

USF attained its preeminence metrics using only the numbers for its main Tampa campus, but Genshaft said that status should not be threatened when the three campuses are combined under one umbrella.

"We have a plan, we're all in alignment, everybody's very excited about consolidation, and we will achieve it by 2020," she said.

USF's consolidation plan, which is being developed in collaboration with community stakeholders, will come up for review by the Board of Governors later this fall. But for now, USF officials are celebrating, while continuing to look to the future.

“We’ve come a long way. But I want you to know we are just beginning,” Genshaft told governors, while Wilcox added, "We are certainly not satisfied nor are we going to rest on our laurels as we continue to strive for even higher levels of performance.”

Governors challenged the pair to meet one of USF's remaining goals -- get into the top 50 on U.S. News and World Report's annual list of the country's best public universities. USF was 68th on the most recent list.

WUSF's Mark Schreiner was the first reporter to speak to Judy Genshaft & Ralph Wilcox following the announcement. Hear his interview with them Tuesday, July 3, on University Beat at 6:45 & 8:45 a.m. and 5:44 p.m.

Mark Schreiner is the assistant news director and intern coordinator for WUSF News.
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