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Why joining the prestigious Association of American Universities puts USF on another level

 An entrance surrounded by green palm trees and red flowers with a bright blue sky in the background.
Daylina Miller
WUSF Public Media
The University of South Florida is accepting an invitation to join the Association of American Universities. Membership in the prestigious group is a goal the school has worked towards for more than 15 years.

The University of South Florida accepted a invitation to the Association of American Universities. It is one of the first schools to join the prestigious group in nearly 40 years.

The University of South Florida has accepted an invitation to join some of the country's leading research institutions in the Association of American Universities (AAU).

Membership in the esteemed group is by invitation only. The AAU, which was founded in 1900, has only 71 members.

USF has been working toward this goal for more than 15 years, with the invitation bringing to fruition the efforts of three university presidents and hundreds of other faculty and school leaders.

In a letter to faculty, staff, and students following last week's announcement, President Rhea Law thanked her predecessors.

 Woman in pale green suit standing at podium holding her hand up in the shape of a bull.
University of South Florida
President Rhea Law speaks at the press conference about USF's invitation to join the AAU on June 1, 2023.

“I wish to extend my sincere gratitude to our past university leadership — especially USF President Emerita Judy Genshaft and Provost Emeritus Ralph Wilcox — for continually advocating for our university's vision and supporting our bold aspirations," she said.

USF is joining the ranks of universities like Yale, Dartmouth, and Stanford in the AAU, which defines their members as being on the “leading edge of innovation, scholarship, and solutions that contribute to scientific progress, economic development, security, and well-being.”

Law said the group's membership criteria align with USF's mission to "positively shape the future of society."

On Thursday, Law tweeted reactions from various USF officials, including former President Genshaft.

USF is one of six universities invited to join the AAU this year, joined by Arizona State University, George Washington University, the University of California Riverside, the University of Notre Dame, and the University of Miami.

Only four other schools have been invited in the last decade.

USF, which was founded in 1956, is the fifth youngest university in the association. It's also the first public university in Florida to join the organization in nearly 40 years, following the University of Florida, which joined in 1985.

Florida Speaker of the House Paul Renner said it's a proud moment for the entire state.

"Joining this prestigious association positions the university to compete for the best talent nationally and accelerates the economic development of the Tampa Bay region and the state of Florida," Renner said.

Man stands at podium speaking in front of a green background while speaking into a mic.
University of South Florida
Board of Trustees Chair Will Weatherford speaks at the press conference about USF's invitation to join the AAU on June 1, 2023.

At last week's press conference announcing the milestone, USF Board of Trustees Chair Will Weatherford said the invitation is one of the most significant accomplishments in the university’s history.

“To be asked by our peers to join such a highly regarded group of the top research universities is a credit to our students, faculty, staff, alumni and other supporters.”

Florida Board of Governors Chair Brian Lamb, who previously served as the USF Trustee Chair, said he's proud to see his alma mater receive the honor.

"Membership in the AAU will provide students and faculty with new academic and research opportunities that seek to address global challenges, creating a transformational impact on generations to come," Lamb said. "Congratulations to President Law, Chair Weatherford, and the entire USF community. Go Bulls!"

Eric Kelderman is a senior reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education. He said there's a lot of institutions across the country that aspire to have AAU membership.

Joining the organization, he said "requires a certain amount of vision and consistency in approach to your mission. You have to be dedicated and have the resources to pursue certain kinds of research funding."

He spoke to WUSF's Meghan Bowman about why the invitation is such a big deal for the university.

USF's mascot Rocky the Bull poses in front of a glass building.
Laura Lyon for University of South Florida
USF's mascot Rocky the Bull poses in front of the Marshall Student Center.

Bowman: Why is the membership so exclusive?

Kelderman: Exclusivity in a sense is sort of a key part of certain elements in higher education. When you think about peer reviewed scientific research, it’s supposed to weed out all but the best. And in a sense, the AAU sort of mimics that approach by inviting only institutions that they think are producing the best and largest volume of very important peer-reviewed scientific research.

Bowman: Why would you say this is a big deal for the University of South Florida?

Kelderman: Largely it indicates that the University of South Florida has reached a certain level of prestige that's important to researchers, people who might be considering USF as a place of employment, or who might be being recruited to USF to join a research team there. It's really a feather in the cap in a way and it's important to provide them.

First of all, the organization advocates for its members on Capitol Hill. For instance, the Department of Education advocates for either legislation, budget priorities, or policies that will benefit their institutions.

It gives the president and other senior members of the leadership team sort of a cohort of peers to network with and collaborate with and learn from.

But, I think overall it certainly cements the institution as a, for lack of a better term, player among sort of the major research institutions in the nation

Bowman: What might this mean for the school, students, and faculty of the university?

Kelderman: I think for graduate students especially, there's a benefit in terms of, say you're getting your master's degree or your PhD, and you're applying to a doctoral or postdoctoral program. When they apply at those other places and the researchers there see that person went to USF, which is an AAU member, that might benefit them in terms of their acceptance into those programs.

There's that and also for the undergrads too, if you're a very serious undergraduate student, and you want to go to a place that you think takes research seriously in your particular field, probably a STEM field or pre-medicine or something like that, it helps the institution sort of sell itself to those students.

It makes it look like a very serious academic institution, which in all likelihood it really is.

Around the world, AAU membership will likely also be a very good way to attract international students to USF as a sign of its research prestige.

Nothing about my life has been typical. Before I fell in love with radio journalism, I enjoyed a long career in the arts in musical theatre.
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