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Trustees reevaluate USF’s strategic renewal, Black student admission strategies

The USF Advisory Task Force and members from the Black Leadership Network presented the plans for each of their projects, which include creating a plan for strategic renewal and increasing Black student enrollment, respectively. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/MICROSOFT TEAMS

All in a day’s work, the Board of Trustees (BOT) covered lots of ground in its meeting Tuesday after discussing plans to move USF toward becoming a member of the American Association of Universities (AAU) and increase Black student enrollment.

The USF Advisory Task Force provided the board with key points they intend on implementing into their plan for strategic renewal to “develop a new vision and plans for the university,” according to President Steven Currall, where one of their ultimate goals includes joining the AAU. 

“Getting into the AAU is not a goal in and of itself, but it is a reward for being great and it’s much closer than a lot of people think,” said USF Advisory Task Force Chair Charles Stanish. 

Stanish said that USF already has peers that are AAU universities as well, including the University at Buffalo, Stony Brook University and the University of Illinois, Chicago. With research as “proxy for productivity,” according to Stanish, USF already has a leg up for the road ahead. 

“Generally speaking as a general rule, the more publications you have, the better you’re doing,” said Stanish. “Once again, we see among 64 public ranked universities, USF is more than holding our own. We’re doing quite well. And we expect those numbers to continue up in the next few years.”

Another key step for the university to move forward, according to Stanish, is the development of a vision statement. Stanish presented two potential vision statements the task force has drafted to represent a newly consolidated USF. 

“Vision statements are very important because it’s usually the first thing that people who care about universities, [and] students will look at when they decide where to attend,” said Stanish. “And so we want to make sure we have a vision statement that is not only consensus, but it is concise and to the point.”

Stanish also presented “potential cross-cutting institutional core commitments” the task force identified after determining five to six areas of strength for the university at the direction of Currall. There are 10 core commitments, which stretch from having a “21st century library” to ensuring diversity, inclusion and anti-racism in all of its endeavors.

Some of the core commitments could alter what a faculty position typically looks like at USF, according to Stanish. He said the task force is “trying to get away from the 40-40-20 model,” which splits faculty duties between service, research and teaching, respectively, to give faculty more flexibility in what they want to fulfill in their roles. 

“We’re also toying with the idea of what we’re calling ‘distributed faculty workload.’ That’s a fancy way of saying that some faculty members really love teaching, and they’re really good at it, and they should be rewarded even if they don’t do a lot of publishing, and other faculty members simply want to dig in and do an awful lot of research,” said Stanish.

Another major part of the task force’s work is identifying USF’s strengths and potential areas of growth universitywide in an effort to join the American Association of Universities in the future. Some of the areas of growth included more undergraduate research opportunities, finding more opportunities for projects in collaboration with MacDill Air Force Base or St. Pete’s environmental and oceanographic technologies.

The other topic that took up a significant amount of discussion time was the university’s steps toward increasing Black student enrollment.

In partnership with the Black Leadership Network (BLN), the university has been working on efforts to increase Black student enrollment across all three campuses. The process, which began over a month ago, focuses on analyzing the total number of Black students who applied and are admitted, as well as roadblocks they could face throughout the application process.

BLN member Lincoln Chandler said the Black student admission rate was 37% compared with 61% of admitted students from other racial groups over the last four years. He said the way to tackle this issue and work toward increasing the rate is to understand the barriers that might be discouraging students from applying.

The plan to increase Black student enrollment focuses on multiple approaches, like understanding the local community across the Tampa Bay area and evaluating aspects of the process that are posing the largest barriers, including application fees, test scores and even submitting the application.

“It’s not simple to apply to a university. You need a family member there, we need the driver’s license of one of the parents because that determines residency, [the] academic history of the student in high school has to be documented [so] they need their high school transcript,” said USF Dean of Admissions Glen Besterfield.

“‘Do those roadblocks impact Black students more than others?’ is one thing we have to look at, because it’s not only [application] submission but [application] completion,” said Besterfield.

Chandler wants to make sure Black students from all over the Tampa Bay area are being considered when it comes to increasing enrollment, and the university adapts its approach based on each district.

“We have representation from Hillsborough and Pinellas, and working with multiple districts is going to be a key part of this because each community has its own set of assets. And so a big part of this work is going to be once we understand what’s happening from a yield perspective, as we reach out to the districts, we have to recognize that all the districts aren’t in the same place,” said Chandler. 

“It’s going to be a mix of community outreach [and] engaging the districts where they are. I think we’re well set to have an inclusive approach, not only at the end, but throughout the process, so they’re forming how we move forward.”

Chandler said the plan will also heavily focus on recruiting in-state students since this group comprises USF’s largest share of its admitted student population. 

While the initiative is set to last six months, Chandler said the university will still “not be done with this work.”

“The idea is that … we need to look at all of the different great things that are happening on campus and understand how this lives within these things, and so I see that the best path to sustainability is really making sure this is really embedded in how we move forward as an institution,” said Chandler.

BOT Chair Jordan Zimmerman, Vice President of Student Success Paul Dosal and Vice President of Institutional Equity Haywood Brown all advocated for the simplification of the application process. 

The university’s efforts, however, will have to receive some support from Tallahassee, according to Anddrikk Frazier, co-founder of the BLN. 

“At the end of the day, I think that there [is] going to need to be some asks from Tallahassee as it relates to the policies and procedures,” said Frazier. 

“This is not just an issue I think that is germane to the University of South Florida. I think that it is germane to the other preeminent institutions that we have here in the state of Florida, and we have to find a way to address this, and we’re going to need all of your help in getting this done.”

Compared to other universities in the State University System, USF is at a disadvantage when it comes to providing more scholarship opportunities to students as well as summer bridge programs and pre-college efforts, according to Dosal.

“Our competitors have many more scholarship opportunities for students but also programs like summer bridge programs that are very helpful to help students make the transition from high school into college,” said Dosal. 

“And then there are also pre-college efforts. And I think as part of our work, we’re most likely going to recommend that we strengthen our pre-college efforts with our partners who were in the community, though those are just three different areas that we’re looking at.”

USF currently has a summer pre-college program in which high school students get to explore the university and what it has to offer as well as discover different career paths they might like to pursue in the future. 

The university, however, still needs an “aggressive” approach and support from the State University System to tackle the issue across the Tampa Bay area, according to Brown. 

“We don’t have the same support that Florida State has. We don’t have the same support that the University of Florida has. And so, as people say, we’ve done a lot more with less, but the reality is it’s going to take some resources to accomplish the goals that we want to go about here at the University of South Florida,” said Brown.

When it comes to tackling this issue, Currall said any support received from the state would be beneficial to the university’s efforts in addressing the issue, but the university should not be “limited” by the financial support received from Tallahassee.

“We’ve got to control our own destiny here,” said Currall. “We need help from Tallahassee, but we’re going to have to be even more aggressive on this topic as a university.”

New projects were also discussed alongside the university’s future path at the meeting, including the addition of an environmental engineering major in USF’s College of Engineering. The new program will not be affected by ongoing budget cuts, as the college is already equipped with the faculty needed to teach coursework for the degree.

“The number of students that will be attracted to this program, with their net tuition, will more than cover our projected needs,” said Dean of the College of Engineering Robert Bishop. “Remember we’re not asking for more faculty, the faculty are already here. So, in essence, this is an additional source of income for a program that already exists.”

The program was unanimously approved by the BOT Academics and Campus Environment Committee on Tuesday.

More projects will be making their way on campus, specifically the Tampa campus, with the new indoor athletics facility beginning construction this summer on USF Sycamore Drive. Director of USF Athletics Michael Kelly expects the facility to be completed within a year from when construction begins.

“In addition to a daily use to our athletic teams of all sorts, I personally think it’ll be another great asset to the university for various events,” said Kelly. “I can see this, with a nice view [while] coming off Sycamore to be another great asset to the university for events of various sorts and sizes.”

The facility will be joining the Judy Genshaft Honors College as another construction project funded with over $22 million in private donations, according to Senior Vice President of Advancement and Alumni Affairs and CEO of the USF Foundation Jay Stroman. 

Trustee Oscar Horton raised concerns about how the ongoing construction projects would be perceived by the community, even when funded by private donations specifically designated for the projects.

“In light of budget cuts, COVID issues, is there a mixed message to the public, to the community, to the employees of the university, that everywhere they look there’s a construction project going on, but all I can hear is that we need to do more with less?” said Horton.

Provost Ralph Wilcox responded by clarifying that the USF administration should assume the responsibility of making sure these projects are clearly and accurately demonstrated.

“While I understand trustee Horton’s question, I believe it is incumbent upon the University of South Florida to carefully and strategically communicate the importance of these investments,” said Wilcox.

While the meeting took on an onslaught of tasks, approved projects and continued discussions, some decisions will need additional time and engagement with the community to be officialized, such as the Strategic Renewal Plan. 

A new vice chair was also appointed during the meeting, with Will Weatherford replacing former Trustee Stephanie Goforth. His term is set to end in 2026.

As the task force moves forward, it plans on refining its priorities and communicating with internal and external stakeholders further, as well as conducting more town halls to solidify its plan. 

“So our next steps, we will refine these strategic priorities … we will complete the [strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats] analysis in this competitive context. And we will have a complete draft of the strategic plan that we hope you will all be proud of, and we hope that will make USF one of the great universities in the United States,” said Stanish.

Additional reporting by Leda Alvim and Audra Nikolajski.