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Breaking Down What USF's Preeminence Means

Mark Schreiner
WUSF Public Media
The University of South Florida joined Univ. of Florida and Florida State Univ. as the state's only preeminent universities last week.

In the minutes following last week's Florida Board of Governors' vote establishing the University of South Florida as the state's third preeminent university, USF System President Judy Genshaft was savoring the accomplishment, but already looking ahead. 

"We are just beginning. This is an exciting time for us, we're going to celebrate, but we're on our way," said Genshaft. 

WUSF's University Beat sat down with Genshaft and Provost Ralph Wilcox for their first interview following the vote June 27 at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. 

The announcement brought to fruition a goal Genshaft set when she became president in 2000. That was to get USF on the same level as the state's two flagship schools, the University of Florida and Florida State University.

What makes that accomplishment all the more impressive is the ages of the schools involved -- while FSU was established in 1851 and UF in 1853, USF is more than 100 years younger, having been founded in 1956.

"It's remarkable and it is commendable for all of the team of the University of South Florida," said Genshaft. "But beyond that, it's momentous for the Tampa Bay community because every single great community like Tampa Bay has a research university that works together with the community."

For those who need a refresher course on "preeminence" and what it means to state universities like USF, here's a reminder:

Lawmakers wanted to highlight research efforts at Florida's public universities on a national and worldwide stage, so, in 2013, they identified 12 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.

They then graded the 12 schools of the State University System on these metrics. Only two of the schools met or surpassed thresholds in at least 11 of the metrics – UF and FSU -- thereby attaining "preeminent status." That meant only those schools could receive additional funding to continue boosting their performance.

In 2016, as a way to increase the number of such schools receiving funds, legislators established the level of "emerging preeminence" for schools that topped at least half of the 12 metrics.

That brought USF and UCF into the fold, so those schools received additional money -- but far less than UF and FSU. For example, in the 2016-17 school year, UF and FSU each got $10 million, while USF and UCF each received $5 million.

Last year, it looked like USF was going to make the leap to preeminence, but lawmakers proposed a change to the required graduation rate, which might have delayed USF attaining the higher status by as much as three years.

While that was nullified when Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the entire higher education bill, it took the graduation metric back to its previous level, which USF reached this year, along with 10 other ones. 

Interestingly enough, the only metric USF didn't top is one where its relative youth worked against it. While the benchmark is for an endowment of at least $500 million, USF's currently stands at $442 million. In comparison, UF's is at $1.6 billion, FSU's $639 million.

Starting with the 2018-19 school year, USF will join UF and FSU in each receiving a little over $6.1 million in annual preeminence funding. The University of Central Florida will receive about $1.7 million as an emerging preeminent institution.

Wilcox said USF will use that money to continue building the university'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 launched a new website to celebrate the achievement, as well as update the community on its progress. 

The USF Foundation also took the opportunity to establish the USF New Era Fund, a scholarship that school officials say will be awarded to full or part-time students, at any academic level and any major on any USF campus. 

But all the news coming out of Orlando last week wasn't good for USF -- when the Board of Governors distributed $560 million in annual performance funding for 11 of the 12 state universities (Florida Polytechnic still isn't eligible for funding yet), USF received $79.6 million dollars. That's $7.7 million less than the previous year. 

That total includes money USF and other schools put into their recurring budgets to match state funds.

Similar to the preeminence benchmarks, the funding is based on ten performance measurements, including retention and graduation rates and salaries of recent graduates. 

USF finished in a tie for third with Florida State and the University of West Florida, but lost a tie-breaker to FSU based on its total points for improvement and excellence. FSU's funding climbed by $13 million to $98.7 million. 

Florida International University was the big winner, jumping from eighth last year to second, due to improvements in graduation rates and a drop in student costs. FIU's performance-based funds jumped from $58 million to $73.7 million.

The University of Florida again topped both the performance rankings and funding. UF will receive $110.6 million, an increase of just over $6.6 million dollars from last year.

Credit Florida Board of Governors
Florida Board of Governors
Performance-based funding allocation for the State University System, 2018-19

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