Years of persistent effort paid off Thursday as the University of South Florida won well-deserved recognition as one of the state’s preeminent universities. USF and the entire Tampa Bay community can be proud of this signature achievement, but the work is far from over. The university should continue to reach even higher as it continues to serve a diverse, nontraditional student population in an urban setting. USF should keep emphasizing what has served it well — a focus on research, strong branch campuses and a clear understanding of the positive force a large public university can play in an entire region.
The Board of Governors, the governing body of the state’s 12 universities, conferred on USF "preeminent" status, a recognition of accomplishment that carries with it prestige and millions of dollars a year in additional funding. USF reached the goal by hitting a series of targets; fall freshmen, on average, need to have at least a 4.0 GPA. More than 70 percent of students need to graduate in six years. The university also has to achieve certain national rankings, patents, research dollars and academic appointments. The much-older University of Florida and Florida State University met the criteria when the state first established it five years ago. USF went to work and became the first state university to rise and hit the mark, and the University of Central Florida is perhaps three years or more away from joining the elite status.
This achievement is a testament to the ambition and follow-through by USF President Judy Genshaft, Provost Ralph Wilcox and many others too numerous to name — students, university personnel and political and community supporters alike — who believed in this university’s potential. Long seen as a commuter school and a place for working students to complete their degrees, USF worked to change its unofficial moniker — "U Stay Forever" — by prioritizing applicants who were ready to succeed and by pouring money into data to identify and help students stay on track. The university increased financial aid, boosted advising and turned a closer eye to graduation rates. Those efforts helped reduce the student achievement gap in the areas of both race and income, and it fostered a new commitment among university officials to take responsibility for the success of every individual student.
With preeminence comes $6.15 million, which USF says it will use in part to hire faculty in areas that offer a big return in scientific value and reputation, such as cybersecurity and the health disciplines of heart, brain and spinal research. The money also will go to lower student-to-faculty ratios and put them more in line with top-rated American universities. USF wants to improve its retention and graduation rates, increase its $442 million endowment and move higher from its ranking of 68th on the U.S. News & World Report list of public universities. It is striving for memberships in Phi Beta Kappa and the prestigious Association of American Universities.
USF’s challenge is to grow in stature without abandoning its historic mission to serve a diverse student body. Part of that task requires the home campus in Tampa to be sensitive to local-area needs as USF consolidates its three separately accredited institutions — USF Tampa, USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee — into one. As it raises its admission standards, USF needs to remain committed to being accessible and affordable. Many students have long been first in their families to attend college, or barely able to pay for it, and USF will need to ensure these students have the support they need to navigate and succeed in this difficult environment.
USF’s breakthrough as a preeminent university is a significant milestone. It comes as the university has raised its profile as a community asset in recent years, providing valuable public service in marine science, transportation, forensics, health care and other vital fields. This also is a celebratory moment for Tampa Bay, which benefits enormously from USF’s continued success.