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A tale of 2 universities // BEYOND ADOLESCENCE

The University of South Florida has turned 40, but the school's continuing identity problems do not qualify as a midlife crisis. Instead, four decades after its inception, USF is still dealing with the kinds of growing pains more commonly associated with a gawky adolescent.

From a distance, USF's growth spurt certainly has looked impressive. A lot of people remember when USF was nothing more than a big patch of bare land north of Fowler Avenue, on what was then the very fringe of developed Tampa. Today, USF has the 13th largest enrollment of any university in the United States, and its regional campuses are a vital part of communities throughout Tampa Bay.

However, not even USF's most ardent boosters would claim that the university has made comparable advances in quality. Because university administrators never stuck to a coherent long-term plan, USF expanded in every direction at once. Too often, the indiscriminate pursuit of more money, more programs and more students created more problems than it solved.

For example, former USF President Frank Borkowski came to the job in the late 1980s with a promise to make USF one of the top 25 public universities in the country by the end of the century. But Borkowski never put in place a serious plan for reaching that grand, if ill-defined, goal. If anything, USF's standing deteriorated in many ways under Borkowski's tenure as state support for Florida's university system failed to keep pace with the gains of the previous decade.

Betty Castor, a longtime Tampa resident who took over as USF president less than three years ago, is familiar with the mistakes of the past, and she seems to have a more realistic and focused plan for the university's immediate future. Castor professes to be less concerned with USF's national reputation than with its reputation for meeting the needs of the students, staff,neighborhoods and businesses that are at the core of its local constituency.

Castor also wants USF to begin resisting the temptation to try to be all things to all people. Too often, that temptation has diverted too many resources to second-class programs that replicate those already established in Gainesville, Tallahassee or elsewhere in the Southeast. Instead, Castor wants USF to stress its advantages over other campuses in the university system: a major urban market, proximity to a special coastal environment, the freedom to innovate and specialize.

Castor says those natural advantages can help make USF "the university of first choice" for Florida students in marine science, gerontology, health sciences, business, mass communications and other disciplines.

Meanwhile, USF's New College campus in Sarasota already has established a niche as one of the country's finest liberal arts programs. The small, self-contained New College program is close to the vision that USF's first president, John Allen, had for the entire university.

Of course, USF has grown far beyond that original vision, fueled by the demands of a region that has experienced its own phenomenal growth over the past 40 years. However, USF's growth has not yet brought a strong identity or character. Tampa Bay's university no longer has the luxury of daydreaming about what it wants to be when it grows up. It already has become a full-grown institution that shoulders mature responsibilities for Tampa Bay and the state. And by defining its mission more clearly, it can help an entire region define its future.