Listening is key to mayoral elections

I once heard a USF professor tell a group of students they should study hard, graduate and then move away to earn big money.

The teacher wanted newly wealthy students to contribute to the school, but his other point was obvious: The real money is out there, not here. Of course, nothing will guarantee that circumstance more than abiding it.

That’s no way for Tampa to look at itself. It is a sure way to consign the region to perpetual second-class status. The only way to fix that is to do the opposite: Graduate and build a place no one has to leave to “make it.” If you think that idea isn’t for you, look at Tampa’s mayoral election.

USF gets mentioned often by the candidates who want to run Tampa. Usually, they talk of commercializing research. It is certainly true that USF is a growing institution, in size and prestige, and should be the engine for Tampa, but that can’t happen by cherry-picking money-generating research. It happens when the university sees itself as an engine and as the educator for generations that will grow the future of Tampa. And by university I mean you, the students, the customers who, however powerless you may feel, are the final word on the university. But you have to speak, early and often. The most powerful megaphone you have is this election.

The mayoral candidates also talk about keeping Tampa’s best. Their point is sound: Tampa has all the talent it will ever need to be world class, if people, including USF students, focus on home. What will keep people here is not pleading sales pitches but rather a means and path to stay. There is an interesting parallel there between the city and the typical USF student.

Tampa is an aging adolescent. Like the average 22-year-old, Tampa, like most of Florida, has grown up on consuming and playing: growth and tourism. But just as a USF senior sees that now is the time to get serious and put the brain to work, Tampa needs to graduate, as well. Being one of America’s playgrounds, retirement centers and producers of raw materials has no future. It’s time to add value, not just size.

Successful cities make their money from their brains, not their sprawl. They create, not consume. They are centers of innovation, not back-office support. They are adults, making their way in the world, not just living off what they can get most easily. The universities that feed them think likewise, indeed they lead the cities in the innovation. These universities don’t just crank out student-widgets to fit employment holes, they form and shape young minds, and vice versa, so together the community can build the next big thing.

So if all you want out of your USF experience is a job, any job, then relax and sit back, because that’s what you’ll get, somewhere. If, however, you love it here and want to make this a marvelous place to live and work, maybe you should listen to this mayoral race.

Join the candidate who speaks to your dreams for this city. As Gandhi said: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Paul Swider is a USF