Anyone paying even the slightest attention to the University of South Florida in recent years knows the school has been on a quest.
To make it into the official upper echelon of state universities, to be deemed "preeminent" and rewarded with millions of dollars, USF needed to hit a series of targets.
Fall freshmen, on average, would need to have at least a 4.0 GPA. More than 70 percent of students would have to graduate in six years. USF would have to tally a certain amount of national rankings, patents, research dollars and post-doctoral appointees.
Only the University of Florida and Florida State University, both much older than USF had the right stuff when the state began keeping track about five years ago. USF got to work.
And on Wednesday, USF leaders sat down in front of state leaders to say that they did it.
The crowd in the University of Central Florida meeting room rose in a standing ovation. USF System President Judy Genshaft beamed, raising her hands in the "Go Bulls" sign, then bowed with her hands over her heart.
"When you've worked so hard and you've reached an accomplishment, it is euphoria, but it's also relief," she told the Tampa Bay Times. "Our achievement is your achievement is everyone's achievement."
Preeminence means $6.15 million, a surge in prestige and a burst of hometown pride.
"I hope that our nearly 350,000 alums will also help celebrate," provost Ralph Wilcox said. "The value of their degree will grow immensely. … It is the culmination of a heck of a lot of hard work, discipline and focus."
After all, he said, USF is the first university to climb up into preeminence. UF and FSU met the criteria from the start.
"We have earned it in ways that no other university in the state of Florida had to at this point in time," Wilcox said. "That doesn't get lost on us."
And doing so without sacrificing USF's diverse student body is another success, Genshaft said. In other words: Tampa's scrappy, urban research university is punching at the same weight as the land grants.
USF plans to spend the money on hiring some heavy-hitting professors, all part of furthering USF's prestigious climb.
Wednesday's meeting with the Board of Governors' strategic initiatives committee wasn't the final stamp of approval for USF, but school leaders posed for celebratory pictures anyway. The full board will give USF the official coronation on Thursday.
Preeminence has been on Genshaft's mind since she took the helm at USF in 2000, as evidenced by her inaugural speech.
"I just happened to use the word 'preeminent,'" she said. "Really! You can look it up."
Back then, Florida was still rewarding schools simply for enrolling students. Genshaft wanted to drill down the focus on research and student success, now USF's two major buzzwords.
Over the years, lawmakers began to dream of Florida universities joining the nation's great public flagships. Accountability metrics aimed at success became gold.
At USF, once derided as a commuter school with the unofficial motto, "U Stay Forever," leaders took those metrics very seriously — especially when the state announced it would enshrine and reward a top tier of colleges.
Some of the state metrics, like research spending, came easily to USF. Others, like graduation rates, have taken serious fine-tuning and number-crunching.
USF officials started prioritizing applicants who showed they were ready to succeed in college. Then they poured money into software, using big data to help struggling students stay on track. The university boosted financial aid and academic advising.
Those efforts helped eliminate the achievement gap among students in both race and income, which has won USF national recognition. It was a culture change.
"We accept the responsibility that for every student that enrolls at the University of South Florida, we're committed unquestionably and unreservedly to their success," Wilcox said.
Genshaft holds staffers to three questions, even giving department heads laminated copies: "Are our programs setting the national standard? If not, what will that take? And what can we stop doing that doesn't help us reach our goals?"
It's that rigor, leaders said, that won USF 'emerging preeminence' in 2016, and the full designation this week. But the work isn't over, Wilcox said.
USF wants to grow its retention and graduation rates, as well as its $442 million endowment. It wants to rise in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, where it's 68th among public universities. It's courting memberships in Phi Beta Kappa and the prestigious Association of American Universities.
There's also a major challenge on the horizon as USF consolidates its three separately accredited institutions — USF Tampa, USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee — into one. To maintain preeminence, USF is raising its admissions standards, while still trying to balance affordability and access.
It's a difficult equation at USF, which prides itself on its diverse student body, including low-income and first-generation students. These students don't always have the support and know-how to navigate college at a clip, meaning USF will have to keep close tabs on their performance to meet its goals.
"It's a constant challenge to balance access with success as we move forward," Wilcox said.
With the preeminence money, USF will make faculty hires in areas that "offer the greatest reputational and scientific return on investment," according to a planning document. Those include cybersecurity, data science and water, as well as health disciplines, such as heart, brain and spinal cord care and research.
The hires will also help lower Tampa's 22-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio. Among AAU schools, the median ratio for public universities is 16 to 1.
After USF outlined its achievements on Wednesday, the Board of Governors offered praise.
"Very rewarding now for all of us," Edward Morton said.
"Strong leadership, strong persistence, outstanding job," Ned Lautenbach said.
Sydney Kitson spared no time in looking ahead.
"Your rank is now 68," he said. "Can you do that same goal setting as to where you want to head with that ranking, and with that same focus, make that happen?"
Contact Claire McNeill at (727) 893-8321 or [email protected]