Undergrad plans discussed at town hall meeting

Faculty, students and staff who attended a town hall meeting with USF President Judy Genshaft on Thursday expressed general approval of her presentation of the University’s five-year strategic plan.

But some raised concerns about a perceived lack of focus on undergraduate education and measurements of the University’s progress that focused too heavily on research.

In the final of three Tampa town-hall meetings to discuss the University’s 2007-2012 Strategic Plan, little of the caustic responses that characterized a meeting held Feb. 16 with USF St. Petersburg’s faculty arose. However, some of the more than 200 faculty, students and staff in attendance raised pointed questions.

“I believe and I think many of my colleagues have been led to believe that we cannot effectively contribute to the ongoing strategic plan of this University if we do not field graduate programs,” said Christopher Steele, a professor of theater. “Does the administration at this University believe that there is a place at this University for departments that choose instead to invest in a very high level of undergraduate education (rather than graduate education and research)?”

Genshaft stressed the importance of providing a quality undergraduate experience, pointing to the plan’s goal to create living-learning environments for undergraduate students. She also said individual departments would refine the details of the University’s commitment to undergraduate education when they write their own strategic plans.

“All student success is critical to this University,” Genshaft said. “I absolutely believe in all the departments and all these areas coming together.”

Robert Potter, a professor of chemistry at USF, said the indicators in the plan proposed to measure progress focused too heavily on research.

“Right now, they’re almost all weighted as research indicators, and nothing looks at the undergraduate program quality and student success,” Potter said.

The measurements detailed in the plan include maintaining its position as a Carnegie Foundation top-tier research university, positioning itself for membership in the prestigious American Association of Universities, and improving in the National Science Foundation’s ranking of research universities and several other indexes focused on research.

Genshaft said the inclusion of new undergraduate-focused measurements warranted consideration.

“I would love to have undergraduate indicators solely, just like we have graduate indicators solely,” Genshaft said. “We’re open.”

Susan Greenbaum, a professor of anthropology and a member of the committee that helped decide the measurements used in the plan, said the inclusion of too many measures in the 2002-2007 Strategic Plan proved too difficult to track. She also said the committee wanted to keep the university-wide indexes general, with more specific ones in each department’s individualized plans.

“This is not the entire picture,” Greenbaum said. “It has a very abstract appearance, but there are details being developed.”

Marion Becker, a professor at the Florida Mental Health Institute, said she thought future plans should specify retention and graduation rates, and that progress toward those goals needed diligent monitoring.

“It’s one thing to have those targets in plan, but it’s another to make sure that you’ve built in the resources, so that if you don’t reach those benchmarks there is an understanding you will stop and analyze the problem and address it,” Becker said. “If we don’t monitor and address it … we’ll five years from now be looking at similar targets.”

Compared to the University of Florida, University of Central Florida and Florida State University, USF’s graduation rates fall far behind. USF’s four-year graduation rate is 21 percent – lower than UF’s 55 percent, UCF’s 32.6 percent and FSU’s 46.1 percent.

Provost Renu Khator, who attended the meeting, agreed with Becker’s assessment.

“We can only say for so long that we are a metropolitan university,” Khator said. “I mean, how long can you use that excuse? You can’t. So we really need to pay attention to who we are bringing in here and what you are doing with them.”

After the meeting, Steele said the plan should allow for a commitment to areas such as theater and Latin, which don’t focus heavily on research or graduate programs. He pointed to research universities, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which offers a theater minor, as models for the commitment to these disciplines at a research university.

“For students to come to this University and not have the opportunity to be involved in (these programs) and not feel like (they) are valued would be a sad statement on what a comprehensive research university ought to be,” Steele said.