Tampa Chamber chair wonders if other universities blocked USF's preeminent status

The University of South Florida may be further from preeminent status than officials thought.
The University of South Florida may be further from preeminent status than officials thought.
Published May 8, 2017

TAMPA — Just as University of South Florida football strives to be on the same level as teams from the University of Florida and Florida State University, so does the Tampa institution when it comes to academia.

But Mike Griffin, chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, believes one of those two competing universities chop-blocked USF to prevent it from obtaining "pre-eminent status" in terms of the education it provides and the millions of dollars in state funds that come with it.

"I don't have direct proof," Griffin said. "But do the math."

Over the weekend, the chamber joined forces with USF to pressure the Tampa Bay area's legislative delegation to stop this from happening.

And the thousands who took part in this effort made their belief clear — USF deserves the pre-eminent status and it was being stolen away.

It won't take long to see if the campaign worked.

Bills before the Legislature since January stated that a four-year graduation rate of 50 percent was needed to be considered pre-eminent.

USF is now at 54 percent, seemingly clearing the way for it to join UF and FSU, which already have that status, and to split the $48 million set aside next year for universities that meet 11 of 12 performance metrics in areas that include student test scores, national rankings and research spending.

But in the final hours Friday, lawmakers changed the bill to raise the graduation rate to 60 percent, which USF does not expect to make until 2020, according to USF spokesman Adam Freeman.

Griffin places the blame on behind-the-scenes lobbying from FSU or UF.

Further changes to the bill cannot be made. It can only be voted for or against, which occurs today.

So, over the weekend, the chamber joined with USF in a call to action to not just the university's students, alumni and supporters but also the business community, asking everyone to contact state elected officials to express anger.

Tactics included emails and calls to these leaders, social media, an online petition through the Tampa chamber and a USF Alumni association website page that helps send messages to elected officials.

USF's Freeman said more than 7,000 such messages were sent within 24 hours.

The chamber could not obtain numbers on Sunday.

"There has been a significant amount of outrage throughout the weekend," said chamber chairman Griffin, a USF class of 2003 graduate. "This is a tactic to take millions of dollars outside this community and put it elsewhere."

Griffin said he personally called every state House member and senator from the Tampa Bay area to let them know where the chamber stands.

This will affect the entire business community, Griffin said.

Pre-eminent status would mean USF can better attract the best and brightest students from around the world, he said. Then local businesses can seek to keep them here, or perhaps the students will launch their own local endeavors.

"Educating the next generation of workers is fundamental to the growth of our community," said Ronald Christaldi, a past chair of the Tampa chamber. "To deny any university the ability to create jobs and grow our talent pool is wrong."

Still, when pressed if he thinks either UF or FSU was behind the change to the bill, Christaldi, who earned his master's and law degree from FSU, would only say, "I have no basis to judge whether that is accurate.

"We all sink or swim together and this should not be about taking away from one to give to another."

If the bill is voted down, the status quo of a 70 percent six-year graduation rate for preeminent status remains. USF is now at 67 percent, Freeman said, and expects to reach 70 by next year.

"We were on the goal line and they moved it back a few yards," Griffin said. "If we allow this to happen now they will do it to us again."

As for which university he thinks is to blame, he wouldn't say.

"At least one of them," he said. "I don't think both."

Contact Paul Guzzo at Follow @PGuzzoTimes.