ORLANDO, Fla. – It’s good to be a Bull.
Although school officials announced last fall that the University of South Florida was in line to become Florida’s next “pre-eminent” university, that achievement will be formally realized Thursday with a vote by the Board of Governors, which oversees the 12 state universities.
“We’ve come a long way. But I want you to know we are just beginning,” USF President Judy Genshaft told the board’s Strategic Planning Committee, which gave preliminary approval for the “pre-eminence” designation Wednesday during a meeting at the University of Central Florida.
With Thursday’s vote, USF --- known in the sports world as the Bulls --- will join the University of Florida and Florida State University as pre-eminent public universities under a state program that began in 2013.
The designation will be financially rewarding. In the new academic year, USF, UF and FSU will each receive more than $6.1 million in new funding specifically designated for the pre-eminent schools. The University of Central Florida will receive about $1.7 million for its status as an “emerging” pre-eminent institution.
Over time, the pre-eminent funding can be significant, since the yearly allocations become part of the school’s permanent funding. With the $6 million they are receiving this year, FSU and UF now have more than $58 million in annual pre-eminent funding. USF will have nearly $20 million, counting the $13.7 million already secured through the school’s prior designation as an “emerging” pre-eminent university.
Genshaft and USF Provost Ralph Wilcox emphasized to university system leaders that they view the new designation as another step toward becoming a top-level national research university.
“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,” Wilcox said.
One of USF’s goals is to move into the “top 50” public universities designated annually by U.S. News & World Report. The school is currently ranked at 68.
One of the keys to that achievement, as well as raising the school’s profile as a top research institution, will be hiring new faculty and reducing the student-to-faculty ratio, which now stands at about 22.
Wilcox said the pre-eminent funding and other initiatives, including a new “world class” scholars program, which provides USF with $13.45 million a year, will help in that effort.
In an update given to university system leaders on its pre-eminence efforts, USF officials identified a half-dozen areas they are targeting for new hires, including neuroscience, data science, cardiovascular research, molecular biology, cybersecurity and marine research.
To achieve its new designation, USF met 11 of the 12 metrics outlined by the pre-eminence program. But with a $442 million endowment as of the 2016-2017 academic year, the school fell short of the $500 million pre-eminence mark. Genshaft said the school is “close” to reaching that level, while out-performing most other schools of a similar age.
Board of Governors members cited a number of areas where USF has dramatically improved, including raising a four-year graduation rate from under 43 percent for the cohort that graduated in 2013 to nearly 60 percent in 2017. Research funding has grown to $558 million in 2016-2017, up nearly $100 million since 2013.
“It’s very rewarding to all of us to see what’s coming about,” said Edward Morton, a member of the Board of Governors.
Another distinction for the university is the fact that 40 percent of its students receive Pell grants, meaning they come from lower-income families. In contrast, less than 28 percent of the students at UF are on Pell grants.
Wilcox said USF, which has about 48,000 students, deliberately strives to provide access to a more diverse student body “than might ordinarily be found at top-tier” research schools.
“It’s a constant challenge to balance access with success as we move forward,” he said.
Another challenge will be consolidating the USF main campus in Tampa with branch campuses in St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee, while maintaining the school’s rise as a research institution. Under a new law, the campuses must be merged by 2020.
Genshaft said she fully supports the move, which is expected to get more scrutiny when the Board of Governors meets this fall.
“It is the right thing to do for our students, for our faculty and for our staff,” she said.