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USF needs to remember what kind of school it is—and isn’t | Editorial
USF is not Harvard or Stanford. And that’s okay.
Scenes at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020 in St. Petersburg.
Scenes at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020 in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Nov. 28, 2020

The University of South Florida bungled the sudden announcement that it was closing the undergraduate College of Education program. Rather than tell their board of trustees, members of Congress, and local school district leaders the school kept the decision largely under wraps. Now, USF has taken stock of the mistake and seems to be backtracking. Last week, administrators said they would retain some undergraduate degrees in the college but still planned to cut down on the number of undergraduate programs. As they work on their plan, they should keep in mind that many of the newly-minted teachers with their undergraduate degrees walk right into jobs with local school districts, many of which come with a solid starting salary of about $47,500. Employability must count for something.

USF administrators appear to have taken note of the blitz of negative feedback. President Steve Currall, provost and executive vice president Ralph Wilcox and interim dean of the College of Education Judith Ponticell released a statement late last week after a meeting with local school superintendents. Although the statement did not offer many specifics, it reflected a clear change in tune. “While changes are needed at USF after a 63 percent drop in the college’s undergraduate enrollment over the past decade,” the statement read, “we intend to continue offering carefully selected undergraduate degrees in education, though likely fewer than the nine baccalaureate degrees, 15 majors, five minors and 18 concentrations currently available.”

This is a concession to local K-12 school superintendents, who were up in arms when they first learned the news that USF was planning to eliminate the undergraduate degree program. Six of them penned an op-ed in the Tampa Bay Times noting their shock. Their main point: School districts have come to depend on USF’s College of Education for well-trained teachers. In Pasco County, for example, roughly 38 percent of the district’s 5,000 teachers got their degrees from USF. “There appears to have been no consideration as to the devastating impact it will have on an already challenging teacher shortage,” the superintendents wrote.

Still, USF administrators appear focused on changing the program -- even if it is not eliminated. They cite dwindling enrollment numbers, down by more than half between 2009 to 2019, and a need for budget cuts. Restructuring from a four-year undergraduate program to a fifth-year Master of Arts in Teaching program would reportedly save the university $6.8 million over the next two years. Their models for the Master’s program include Harvard, Stanford and University of California, Berkeley.

USF leaders have made clear they want to increase excellence at the public university. They have lofty and noble goals. But the value of a public university is not just its quality instruction, but service to its community. And this growing community needs skilled teachers, not just a university with a top-tier reputation. Preeminence status is important, but so is turning out employable graduates.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.