TAMPA — Ambition defines the University of South Florida, where enrollment has surged so fast that the number of professors has not kept pace.
In high-demand fields like health and engineering, crowded auditoriums have become a symptom of success.
Now that USF is on track to join the state's top-tier of universities, it wants a classroom experience to match.
The plan: bring 350 new, full-time faculty members on board in the next five years.
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Similar plans are under way at the state's universities in Gainesville, Tallahassee and Orlando. Altogether, Florida's top four public research universities are readying for a wave of 1,500 new faculty members, largely tenure-track, in the coming years.
The serious investment in research and talent underscores the collective drive to catapult Florida's universities into the upper echelons of academia — sooner rather than later.
"We're going to drive down this path whether others notice or not," said USF provost Ralph Wilcox. "It's ambitious. I think we're off to a great start."
And it makes Florida something of a national anomaly.
State lawmakers with grand visions for Florida schools have generously funded higher education in recent years, allowing for the hiring wave.
School leaders envision a long list of perks, like more patents, a faster path to graduation and stronger national rankings. Most critically, the hires will reduce student-to-faculty ratios and bolster research.
USF has set its sights on joining the elite American Association of Universities, but if it became a member today, it would have the worst ratio of the pack at 22-to-1. Its new goal, a 19-to-1 ratio, would bring it closer, "though of course we won't stop there," Wilcox said.
Students today want more classroom mentorship, Wilcox said. They want hands-on lab work and service learning that lets them touch the real world. They're tired of passive lectures with 400 other students.
Even juniors in Jim Garey's department of cell biology, microbiology and molecular biology have to take mega-lectures, Garey said. It's a tough job for the professors on stage, where teaching is more like a performance than a conversation.
"Just imagine," Garey said. "If you stop talking, students will talk to each other, and soon there's a roar."
To that end, USF will hire professors where they are most needed. The College of Engineering will gain 102 faculty members. Business will get 54, natural sciences and mathematics will get 74, and the Morsani College of Medicine will get 50 new members to enhance research.
The university estimates about $50 million in recurring costs, such as salaries and benefits. About $63 million will go to one-time costs, like new equipment and searches for job candidates. USF also projects $275 million in capital costs including new research labs.
First, it will have some competition.
The University of Florida, hoping to crack the top 10 public university rankings, is seeking 500 new faculty members.
Florida State, shooting for the top 25, is hiring 400.
The University of Central Florida already has brought in 200 new professors with plans for 120 more this year — increasing its tenure-track faculty by half.
Even tiny New College in Sarasota plans to hire 40 new professors, ensuring its impending enrollment boost won't dilute its prized 10-to-1 student-faculty ratio.
Provosts at all five schools tick off a list of benefits that includes more attention on struggling students and more time for overworked teachers to dig into research.
UCF has gotten a head start.
Students outnumbered faculty 31 to 1 when provost Dale Whittaker arrived at UCF in 2014. As the school sought to bring that down, tenure-track faculty became key, he said. Their long-term mindset would help build UCF into something better.
At UF, provost Joe Glover recently gave deans the go-ahead for their first wave of hiring, 100 lecturers and 100 tenure-track faculty.
UF gateway classes like biology get crowded quickly. Some calculus lectures number 500 students, the provost said.
"Calculus is often quite a shock for students," Glover said. "They don't get to do the type of active problem solving we know helps them really learn the subject."
With more professors, UF aims to overhaul freshman calculus. Students will study in their dorms, then work on problems with their professor in small classes.
These investments don't come cheaply. The university estimates recurring costs of $23 million for its first 200 hires. UCF is looking at $43 million in recurring costs for its 320 new faculty, with $57 million in startup costs. Startup can be cheap if a no-frills professor just needs a laptop, but an engineer may command much more.
The schools are looking for faculty members who can bolster ongoing research. USF seeks experts in broad topics like water, from marine science to sinkholes. Most of its hires to date have been in heart health and medical engineering.
"These are scientists and engineers that can pretty much choose wherever they want to go," Wilcox said. "To some extent, it's a talent war out there."
USF has secured some impressive early recruits, including Charles Stanish, a noted UCLA archaeology professor and member of the National Academy of Sciences, and Dr. David Weill, a renowned Stanford transplant surgeon. Both said USF's upstart ambition was a lure.
"I was mainly looking for people who wanted to build, people with a vision," said Stanish, who will create a research institute at USF. The jaded pretension of so-called cathedral universities didn't appeal to him. USF had the right energy.
"There's a difference," he said. "A different attitude."
Helping attract faculty is Florida's investment in higher education at a time when states like Illinois are losing students and faculty amid budget cuts and pervasive uncertainty.
"I would call this an outlier, but in a very positive way," said John Ikenberry, president of the HigherEdJobs, an online clearinghouse for jobs in academia. "It's great to see healthy institutions that are able to boldly step forward and take initiatives like this."
Since the recession, academia has increasingly relied upon cheaper, more flexible contract teachers. Investing in tenure signals stability.
"This is a significant step to modernizing and growing the state's economy," said Tom Harnisch, director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. "This will yield more research funding, which can lead to more spinoff business and industry clusters and, ultimately, jobs."
Most of the money will come from the state, which rewards universities for performance in measures like graduation rates. Plus, universities had a banner year with help from Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart.
Negron toured the state's 12 public universities, noting what they needed to become elite, destination schools on par with the likes of the University of North Carolina. One evident hurdle was overcrowding.
"We saw instances of 750 students in an auditorium being taught by a graduate assistant. That's not a quality education," Negron said. "We heard students say sometimes there weren't enough seats in an auditorium so they'd have to go online and tune in from their dorm room."
The sweeping higher education bill he crafted was vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott, but universities still got a windfall in the budget. Along with private donations, those dollars are turning into faculty salaries.
For faculty, new hires mean more than ratios.
Jan Ignash was a USF professor before becoming chief academic officer of the Board of Governors. She remembers the fall days when she'd wait for the new faculty to arrive.
"It's an infusion of new ideas and energy," she said. "Unless you've lived through it, it's hard to capture just how exciting and important it is."
Garey, the Faculty Senate president, said that's what faculty want more than anything else.
"More than big pay increases, they most like getting new colleagues," Garey said. "Then they realize that this is a growing place, that we're moving upwards, we're going somewhere."
Contact Claire McNeill at (727) 893-8321 or [email protected]