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

After years of striving for “preeminent” status in Florida, finally reaching the goal in 2018, the University of South Florida has set itself the goal of joining another prestigious club.

The main focus is an invitation to the American Association of Universities, a group of 66 leading research universities in the United States and Canada with leading faculties, large research budgets, and incoming classes filled with some of the top performing students in the country. The group’s initials, AAU, are starting to become almost as familiar on campus as “USF”.

Former USF President Judy Genshaft has occasionally mentioned the goal in speeches. His successor, Steve Currall, who suddenly stepped down over the summer, bolded it in the university’s 10-year strategic plan.

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

Earlier this month, the committee looking for Currall’s successor made it clear that joining the association should be one of the new leader’s main goals. Meanwhile, the research consultant said his target candidates would be senior officials from schools belonging to the group.

When USF was once again called “America’s most dynamic university” by American News and World Report recently, the school made a point of underlining that its ranking n ° 46 among the public universities places it ahead of or tied with five schools of the association.

Related: USF plans to hire new president by January

And last month, when the state’s board of governors approved the university’s request for an additional $ 50 million from the legislature, USF said it would spend most of the money to hire. hundreds of new faculty members – for the purpose of joining the association.

“Membership in AAU, in its most basic sense, is recognition that Florida universities are nationally prestigious, as is the entire Florida State University system,” USF said in its official request. “Given the historical track record of the AAU institutions to date, the state and taxpayers will be more than reimbursed for these additional investments.”

Rare invitations

USF faculty leaders used the university’s grand purpose as a point of debate as they mingled with the administration of pandemic spending and rules. They suggested the USF was not acting like an AAU school, judging by its budget decisions and how it relaxed COVID-19 protection protocols.

As the university struggled to cut costs last year, it offered layoffs, program cuts and a cut to USF’s library system, asking faculty to do more with less. The Faculty’s Senate complained to the board, saying in a letter that “top public research universities” should do a better job of balancing demands and that USF’s actions “appear to compromise. both its national image and its community responsibility. . “

Faculty Senate President Tim Boaz, a board member, also questioned the university’s decision not to impose more stringent mask mandates and vaccination rules. Most AAU schools, he said, have adopted such measures.

Despite these arguments, faculty support for USF’s membership in the association has been curtailed, although Boaz said in an interview that it wouldn’t be a bad thing. An infusion of state money to go on quest would result in smaller class sizes for students and attract high-level faculty members who could guide others and help secure research grants, a- he declared.

The roots of the organization go back to 1900, when five of the country’s top university presidents sent a letter to nine others calling for “greater consistency” among schools and efforts to elevate world opinion. on American education.

At the time, according to the AAU website, higher education in the United States faced a perceived lack of respect from European universities, and American students were moving abroad to continue their studies. .

The organization was formed during a two-day conference, with an agreement to limit the number of members.

Related: USF welcomes new interim president Rhea Law. “We support you. “

“Almost from the inception of the AAU,” the website said, “German universities began to use AAU membership as a measure of quality for admissions to graduate schools.”

Invitations to the group, decided by a vote of the members, remain rare.

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

The last invitation, to Tufts University, was issued in May. Previously, three universities were invited in 2019, one in 2012, one in 2010 and two in 2001.

Association spokesperson Pedro Ribiero said a committee is constantly evaluating non-member universities for possible membership and considering 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 greatest responsibility of AAU members is to be the primary voice and advocate for research universities in the country. In some ways, he said, they help maintain the “health of the nation,” reminding the public and policy makers of the role universities play in their research.

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

For USF, the path to market entry is through the Florida Preeminence Funding Model, which was initiated by the Board of Governors in 2013 and is based on achieving certain metrics. (The AAU website lists what it looks for in members.)

When USF rose to prominence in 2018, joining UF and Florida State University, each school received $ 6.2 million in funding under the program. But the following year, the legislature began allocating additional funds based on national rankings, removing USF from the cake – until that fiscal year, when all three schools received no funding.

For the 2022-2023 fiscal year, the USF, UF and FSU are asking the legislature for $ 50 million each and that funding be maintained at this level for successive years. The proposal went to the House Higher Education Credit Subcommittee last week.

Kent Fuchs, the president of UF, cited preeminence funding as the reason his school recently managed to rank in the top 5 public universities. At USF, the money will also be used to chase leaderboards – and an invitation to AAU.

“USF is on track – already positioned as a leading public institution in research spending and in the Top 10 for the creation of intellectual property (eg, patents),” the school said in its application. “Evidence shows that a dollar invested in USF has stretched further and generated better returns for students and the economy over the past decade than at any Florida public university or college. United States.”

The document argued that Florida has one AAU school compared to California, which has 10, Texas with three, and New York City with two. He said having another school in the group would help Tampa Bay attract talent on par with other major metropolitan areas in the United States.

The university also listed the metrics used by American News and World Report by comparing itself to other AAU institutions.

Related: UF becomes one of the 5 best public universities in the latest US news ranking

The average AAU public school, according to its analysis, had a retention rate of 92 percent, which measures the number of students returning after their first year. The rate at USF is 91 percent. The average AAU public school had 41 percent of classes with fewer than 20 students, while the USF had 44 percent.

But in other areas, the USF is lagging behind.

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

A further injection of public funds would help close this gap, argued the USF.

More than $ 29 million would be spent on hiring 175 full-time first-year teachers and instructors, with a total of 375 new teachers over five years. An additional $ 8 million would go to retaining top performing faculty, and $ 5.5 million would go to recruiting students.

In areas where USF lags behind other leading research schools, the difference can be attributed to “available financial resources,” depending on the school’s funding request. “USF adopts metrics-based accountability; we like it and our results speak for themselves.

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