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Research without educated researchers?

No doubt there are many reasons to choose to come to the University of South Florida. There are those who didn’t want to go too far away from home or, quite the opposite, those who figured the farther away the better. Some students like the climate and the beaches while others appreciate the diversity that is a result of the many transfer students on campus.

Curiously though, not one of the undergraduate students I have met over the past year and a half has told me that the University’s goal to be a top-50 public research institution in five years was the reason they chose USF.

Before I am misunderstood, let me say that I think research as part of a balanced approach to a college education, is important. Pushing the bounds of our understanding of the fundamentals of any discipline is worthwhile.

In addition, I applaud the fact that in a recent National Science Foundation study, as stated on the USF Web site, USF is “one of the nation’s fastest growing research universities in terms of federal research and development expenditures.” The Web site goes on to say USF had more than $106 million in federal research expenditures in 2003.

Let’s crack open the champagne bottles and celebrate our ascent into the stratosphere of public universities! But do we really have anything to celebrate?

As reported in a recent news article in The Oracle, USF dropped to 189 in a U.S. News and World Report college ranking report. The number is arbitrary and, judged alone, means little. Would you really see a difference in a school that dropped 10 places or gained just as many? I highly doubt it.

The statistic that should be particularly disturbing, and is rightly pointed out in a scathing Tampa Tribune editorial, is our meager 47 percent graduation rate.

There seems to be a disconnect between what the 33,459 undergraduates came to USF to accomplish and what the institution has achieved. Students come to campus with the promise that a college education will provide the tools for success. Right now USF seems inept at graduating these students.

There is a lot of work to be done. Students need to be tracked better and perhaps teamed with mentors, whether upper-level students, graduate students or faculty to motivate and ensure that requirements for degree programs are met in a timely manner.

In addition, if the administration is as serious about improvement as USF Vice Provost Ralph Wilcox indicated in his comments printed in The Oracle, then let’s start with a memo or press release indicating USF’s new primary goal of becoming a top academic institution. Included should be the concrete steps that would be taken to show the nation we are serious about classroom education and graduation levels.

Certainly I don’t have all the answers or perhaps don’t even understand the depth of the problem, but something tells me that if this school were to concentrate more on academic success, the research resources would follow. While we may have some very dedicated and noteworthy research faculty, particularly in the health sciences, what good is it if we cannot graduate more than half our students?

In addition to a successful academic environment driving our research objectives, it will also increase the abysmal 5 percent alumni-giving rate the Tampa Tribune cited. While this percentage of alumni gifts is certainly affected by the relative youth of the University, it doesn’t take a math major to figure out that graduating more students creates more alumni and increases potential alumni gifts to the school.

I realize that for most of us today, the fundamental changes that the USF administration needs to make to increase graduation rates may be instituted after we have gone on to other pursuits. I just hope that change is on the way, or the pursuit of a research empire may eventually crumble this institution into academic ruin.

Aaron Hill is a senior majoring in economics.