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USF wants to join an elite club of universities. $50 million could help.

The school is asking the Legislature for money to hire more faculty and make other improvements, with the goal of getting noticed.
Students walk the University of South Florida campus in St. Petersburg. The university is working to boost its rankings and attract the attention of the American Association of Universities.
Students walk the University of South Florida campus in St. Petersburg. The university is working to boost its rankings and attract the attention of the American Association of Universities. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Sep. 27

After years of striving to achieve “preeminent” status in Florida, finally reaching the goal in 2018, the University of South Florida has set its sights on getting into another prestigious club.

The primary objective is an invitation to the American Association of Universities, a group of 66 major research universities in the U.S. and Canada with top-flight faculties, big research budgets and incoming classes filled with some the nation’s highest-achieving students. The group’s initials, AAU, are starting to become almost as familiar around campus as “USF.”

Former USF president Judy Genshaft sometimes mentioned the goal in speeches. Her successor, Steve Currall, who left the job suddenly over the summer, put it in bold letters in the university’s 10-year strategic plan.

But as USF seeks a fresh start with Currall’s replacement and continues its push for higher rankings, the goal of becoming an AAU school is coming up at almost every turn.

Earlier this month, the committee searching for Currall’s successor made clear that entry into the association should be one of the new leader’s main goals. Meanwhile, the consultant helping with the search said his target candidates would be top officials from schools that belong to the group.

When USF was again deemed “America’s Fastest-Rising University” by U.S. News & World Report recently, the school made sure to point out that its No. 46 ranking among public universities put it ahead of, or tied with, five schools in the association.

Related: USF expects to hire a new president by January

And last month, when the state Board of Governors approved the university’s request for an extra $50 million from the Legislature, USF said it would spend most of the money on hiring hundreds of new faculty members — with the goal of getting into the association.

“Membership in the AAU, in its most basic sense, is a recognition that Florida universities are nationally prestigious, and thereby so is Florida’s entire State University System,” USF said in its formal request. “Given the historical track record of AAU institutions to date, the state and taxpayers will be more than repaid for these additional investments.”

Rare invitations

Faculty leaders at USF have used the university’s big goal as a debating point as they tangled with the administration over spending and the pandemic rules. They suggested that USF wasn’t acting like an AAU school, judging by its budgeting decisions and the way it eased protocols for protecting against COVID-19.

As the university moved to reduce costs last year, it proposed layoffs, program cuts and slashing the USF Library System, asking faculty to do more with less. The Faculty Senate complained to the board of trustees, saying in a letter that “top-tier public research universities” are expected to do a better job of balancing demands and that USF’s actions “appear to be compromising both its national image and its community responsibility.”

Faculty Senate president Tim Boaz, a board of trustees member, also questioned the university’s decision not to impose mask mandates and stronger vaccination rules. Most AAU schools, he said, had adopted such measures.

Despite those arguments, faculty support for USF joining the association has been muted, though Boaz said in an interview that it wouldn’t be a bad thing. An infusion of state money to go toward the quest would result in smaller classes for students and attract high-profile faculty members who could mentor others and help draw research grants, he said.

The organization’s roots go back to 1900, when five of the nation’s leading university presidents sent a letter to nine others calling for “greater uniformity” among the schools and efforts to raise the world’s opinion of American education.

At the time, according to AAU’s website, higher education in the United States faced a perceived lack of respect from European universities, and American students were heading overseas to advance their studies.

The organization was formed during a two-day conference, with an agreement to keep membership limited.

Related: USF welcomes its new interim president Rhea Law. ‘We’ve got your back.’

“Almost as soon as AAU was founded,” the website said, “German universities began using AAU membership as a measure of quality for graduate school admissions.”

Invitations to the group, decided by a vote of members, remain few and far between.

Thirty-six of the member schools are public like USF, 28 are private and two are in Canada. Members pay a $139,500 fee per year.

The last invitation, to Tufts university, was extended in May. Prior to that, three universities were invited in 2019, one in 2012, one in 2010 and two in 2001.

Association spokesperson Pedro Ribiero said a committee constantly evaluates non-member universities for possible membership and looks at whether current members should retain their status.

The University of Florida, invited in 1985, is the only Florida school in the group.

A focus on metrics

Ribiero said the biggest responsibility AAU members hold is to be the leading voice and advocate for research universities in the nation. In some ways, he said, they help in upholding the “health of the nation,” reminding the public and policy makers of the role universities play through their research.

While many people may never go to an AAU university, he said, they still directly benefit from the research done there. Ribiero pointed to research at the University of Pennsylvania that led to the mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 and the trials for the Moderna vaccine held at Vanderbilt University.

For USF, the path to gaining entry is through the Florida’s preeminence funding model, which was started by the Board of Governors in 2013 and is based on achieving certain metrics. (The AAU’s website lists what it looks for in members.)

When USF became preeminent in 2018, joining UF and Florida State University, each school received $6.2 million in funding through the program. But the year after that, the Legislature began awarding the additional funds based on national rankings, cutting USF out of the pie — until this fiscal year, when all three schools received no funds.

For the 2022-23 fiscal year, USF, UF and FSU are asking the Legislature for $50 million each, and for the funding to continue at that level for successive years. The proposal went the House Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee last week.

Kent Fuchs, the UF president, cited preeminence funding as the reason his school was able to achieve its ranking as a Top 5 public university recently. At USF, the money will be used to chase rankings, too — and an AAU invitation.

“USF is well on its way — already positioned as a highly-ranked public institution in research expenditures and annually in the Top 10 for intellectual property (e.g., patent) creation,” the school said in its request. “Evidence shows that a dollar invested in USF has stretched farther and delivered greater returns to students and the economy during the last decade than at any public university in Florida or the United States.”

The document argued that Florida has one AAU school compared to California, which has 10, Texas with three and New York with two. It said having another school in the group would help Tampa Bay attract talent on a level with other big U.S. metropolitan areas.

The university also listed metrics used by U.S. News & World Report in comparing itself to other AAU institutions.

Related: UF becomes a top 5 public university in latest U.S. News rankings

The average public AAU school, its analysis said, had a 92 percent retention rate, which measures how many students return after their first year. The rate at USF is 91 percent. The average public AAU school had 41 percent of classes with fewer than 20 students, while USF had 44 percent.

But in other areas, USF lags.

For example, the average faculty member at public universities in the association earned $132,052 compared to $109,470 at USF. And the average faculty-to-student ratios for the AAU schools were 17 to 1 compared to 23 to 1 at USF.

A new infusion of state money would help bridge that gap, USF argued.

More than $29 million would be spent on hiring 175 full-time faculty and instructors in first year, with a total of 375 new faculty over five years. Another $8 million would be spent on retaining high-performing faculty members, and $5.5 million would go toward student recruitment.

In the areas where USF is behind other top-flight research schools, the difference can be attributed to “available financial resources,” the school’s funding request said. “USF embraces metrics-based accountability; we relish it, and our results speak for themselves.”