When you live right down the road from the top universities in Florida, how do you stay competitive?
If you're the University of South Florida, you hold onto your best staff.
USF is planning to give merit raises to many faculty and staff members with the goal of keeping them around, while also tightening belts in other areas. The boon follows a long economic struggle, as Florida's public universities lost state funding year after year.
In an email to faculty and staff this week, USF president Judy Genshaft announced plans to establish a "central pool of funds" to "reward high-achieving, dedicated employees."
She stated: "We care deeply about our people and want to further invest in them through meaningful performance-based salary increases that demonstrate how greatly we value their efforts."
The merit increases will be on top of across-the-board pay increases and bonuses for state employees approved by Florida's Legislature and governor.
The note follows the recent news that two major players are leaving USF for new jobs — medical school dean Stephen Klasko to Thomas Jefferson University, and engineering dean John Wiencek to Virginia Commonwealth University.
But USF officials say the new initiative is unrelated, that it has been in the works for a year, and that those deans simply left for promising opportunities.
School leaders say the real pressure to keep faculty stems from two other factors:
• The federal government's cutbacks are slashing research funding, making it even more essential for the university to keep and acquire the best researchers who will draw the best grants.
• The state's decision to grant the University of Florida and Florida State University "preeminent" status increases competition. By meeting a series of standards, preeminent schools get more money and prestige, making them more attractive to academics.
The University of Florida, for example, is getting $15 million annually for five years to try to become one of the nation's top ten public universities. The school is matching the money through private fundraising, dedicating $30 million a year to hiring faculty.
There hasn't been a mass exodus of USF employees heading to UF or FSU, officials said. But it has happened in Florida before. In 2008, large numbers of professors left Florida for states that paid better, prompting some schools to use federal stimulus money to hire new professors or stave layoffs.
"It is imperative that the university continue to remain competitive, and the president is very committed, of course, to retaining faculty and staff who have worked tirelessly," said USF spokeswoman Lara Wade.
Genshaft also said in her email that USF wants to boost its reserve funds, currently set at $102 million, by 5 percent throughout the year.
"Our reserves were depleted over the recent years as we sought to shield jobs and programs from the worst of the budget cuts," she said. "Replenishing our cash reserves is critical to protect the USF system's strong financial health."
To aid in this, USF will place a hold on filling vacant faculty and staff positions. The school has 393 active job openings for staff and faculty, not counting Federal Work-Study positions, student temporary employment and positions funded fully by contracts and grants.
The hold should not translate into overcrowded classrooms, officials said, as enrollment has held steady for years. If a professor leaves, deans will take an overall look at their colleges and make a case for or against filling the job. If they make a new hire, they will be asked to offset costs in other ways.
"Rare consideration will be given to hires directly associated with the system's health and safety obligations, research productivity, student success, accreditation needs and revenue generation," Genshaft said in her email.
USF leaders will review the strategy's progress every month.
The topic of staff retention and competition has been a recent theme. At the June meeting of the Board of Governors, which oversees the State University System, Genshaft was asked if she was comfortable with the size of her faculty.
"No," she replied. "It's much too small."
There were plans to grow it, provost Ralph Wilcox assured the board.
"That foundation is built over time," he said, contrasting USF's faculty size to UF's. "As a younger university, it's difficult to build that critical mass. Certainly, we do have plans."
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3394.