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USF’s hope for pre-eminence hinges on student success

USF received the title of emerging pre-eminent June 21. This includes an increase of $5 million in state funding that the university gets annually for research. Special to the Oracle

In the wake of USF’s recent classification as an emerging pre-eminent research university — handed down by the Florida Board of Governors on June 21 — USF administration continues to push for new ground.

And for now, it begins and ends with students.

“Students, above all other parties, have to recognize that their performance is going to reflect on the university’s growing reputation perhaps more than anything else,” USF Provost Ralph Wilcox said in an interview with the Oracle on Tuesday.

USF received the title of emerging pre-eminence after exceeding six of the 12 benchmarks needed. The university, which currently meets nine of those benchmarks, is only two away from reaching full pre-eminent status.

The remaining categories include a 90 percent or better freshman retention rate, a 70 percent or better six-year graduation rate and at least a $500 million dollar endowment.

While USF is over $80 million shy of the required endowment goal, it stands only 2 percent away in the other two categories.

In this regard, Wilcox does not place the entire responsibility on the student body, but insists that it is an integral part of USF reaching its goal.

“All too often when we talk about student retention and graduation rates, the assumption is that this is a challenge or problem for the university, our professors and our advisers,” Wilcox said. “But first and foremost, our students need to accept the responsibility of moving along the timely path toward graduation.

“Absolutely, we expect our students to step it up in the same way that we will be expecting all corners of the university community to step up their efforts to bring the University of South Florida to the next milestone.”

Students, as well as the university as a whole, will be the primary beneficiaries if the school reaches full pre-eminence, according to Wilcox.

“Whether it’s emerging pre-eminence, full pre-eminence or eventual eligibility for (Association of American Universities) membership, it’s going to attract the best professors that USF students will have the opportunity to learn from and collaborate with,” Wilcox said.

“If you take that degree into the workplace or graduate school perhaps, as we become pre-eminent, the value of that degree is going to climb and will be perceived quite differently than it is today.”

The title of “emerging pre-eminent” also comes with a recurring $5 million, allocated by the BOG. 

Pre-eminent status from the state increases funding to $20 million, as of 2016, which USF System President Judy Genshaft said USF should reach within the next two years.

The money awarded this year will go to two projects that Wilcox said “will be invested in a very focused, disciplined way to attract more faculty talent from around the country and around the world to the University of South Florida.”

The first project is to construct the USF Heart Institute in downtown Tampa, which is designed to “attract researchers that are conducting highly regarded, cutting-edge research,” according to Wilcox.

The other project is investing in various areas of medical engineering.

Wilcox said there were options when deciding where to spend the allocated money, but rather than spreading it over multiple disciplines, the school decided to focus in specific areas with “clear and measurable outcomes.”

But emerging pre-eminence — or full pre-eminence for that matter — is just a steppingstone toward a goal that USF has aspired to reach for quite some time: AAU eligibility status.

Far before pre-eminent status was created in 2013, USF was already in the works to become eligible for the AAU.

Florida is currently the only one of the top 10 most populated states to have only one university represented in the AAU, which includes 60 U.S. and two Canadian universities.

The University of Florida is the state’s lone member.

“We need to grow the stature and reputation of universities in the state university system,” Wilcox said. “The value added that accompanies an educational experience or a degree from those universities is significant indeed.

“It means that future students will have the opportunity to enroll at one of the nation’s very, very best research universities.”

As expected, the requirements for AAU eligibility are higher than those of pre-eminent status. According to Wilcox, the average freshman retention rate is 92 percent with a six-year graduation rate at 81 percent. 

And even then USF would only be eligible, with no certainty of earning acceptance from the AAU.

“We’ve made incredible strides over the years. It’s been planned it’s been intentional; and it’s been systematic,” Wilcox said. “These things don’t just happen over night. It’s been part of a sustained, disciplined, focused plan of the University of South Florida community.”