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University of South Florida joins exclusive academic association

Mark Parker



The University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus. The school system joined the top 3% of American research institutions Thursday. Photos by Mark Parker.

Leadership and stakeholders across the University of South Florida system rejoiced Thursday as the Tampa Bay institution achieved an ambitious goal – an invitation to join the Association of American Universities (AAU).

Academic leaders nationwide consider membership the pinnacle of recognition for research colleges. Before Thursday, just 65 institutions – including Harvard, Yale, Duke and Ohio State Universities – comprised the prestigious association, founded in 1900.

President Rhea Law noted in a Thursday afternoon press conference that only 3% of U.S. universities have received an invitation but conduct 63% of federal research. She said USF’s “monumental achievement” would attract more preeminent students, faculty and entrepreneurs to the region.

In a statement to the Catalyst, USFSP Regional Chancellor Christian Hardigree said she is “beyond thrilled” to join the exclusive group.

“We can’t overstate the tremendous opportunities it will create for our campus, our university and our entire region,” Hardigree said. “AAU status will supercharge our efforts to recruit and retain the best and brightest faculty and students, and gives civic leaders a powerful tool as they seek to attract new businesses to our community.

“This is truly a defining moment in our university’s history.”

USF is now the Association of American Universities’ fifth youngest institution. Photo by Cindy Floyd.

Tampa Bay now joins a short list of major metropolitan areas – think Boston and Los Angeles – that can boast an AAU institution. The University of Florida was previously the state’s only member, although the University of Miami also joined the ranks Thursday.

USF, however, is still one of only two state universities in the AAU and the first to receive an invitation in 40 years. Florida State University is actively working towards inclusion, and the University of Central Florida included membership as part of its future aspirations earlier this year.

“It means that we are an even more active part of our (Tampa Bay’s) economic development initiatives,” Law said. “Because people know they can come to the university to look for solutions … commercialize some of our patents or work with our faculty members on solving global problems. We are here for all of those things.”

Notre Dame, founded in 1842, finally received an invitation Thursday. USF opened 114 years later, in 1956, and is now the AAU’s fifth-youngest institution.

Board of Trustees Chair Will Weatherford often says that Tampa Bay “will only go as far as USF will take it.” He called AAU inclusion a “seismic shift” in USF and the region’s potential.

“Our ability to serve the best and brightest and generate top-tier human capital for this community will help dictate Tampa Bay’s economic future for generations to come,” Weatherford added. “To be a member of the AAU in less than 70 years of our university’s founding is nothing less than miraculous.”

The invitation represents a full-circle moment for Law. She chaired the board of trustees in 2007 when USF formally included AAU membership in its strategic plan – as Orlando’s UCF did in January.

She also began working in the Office of Sponsored Research at 18 years old and said the university has traveled “light years to be at a place” where the nation’s most prominent institutions ask USF to join their exclusive club. She said peer recognition “as being one of America’s leading research universities is indeed momentous.”

“It is just an example of our commitment, our determination, our innovative spirit and more importantly, that relentless pursuit of excellence,” Law added. “It’s paid off, and now we are really on a mission to improve lives and positively shape the future.”

USF president Rhea Law speaks at Thursday afternoon press conference.

Inclusion enhances funding opportunities, as AAU researchers have received $28.8 billion to perform 63% of federally funded research initiatives. Graduates include 13 U.S. Presidents, 24 governors, 60 Fortune 100 CEOs and 39% of all Nobel Peace Prize winners.

With the addition of six preeminent research universities Thursday, the AAU now features 69 American and two Canadian institutions. According to its website, it “is an association of leading comprehensive research universities distinguished by the breadth and quality of their programs.”

Association officials also consider faculty excellence, student graduation rates and the number of Pell Grant recipients. The website notes that “it values remaining a relatively small organization … with the expectation that its membership will include the leading research-intensive universities.”

Ray Rodrigues, State University System Chancellor, expressed the value of AAU membership and his belief that USF would soon achieve its nearly 16-year goal.

“You don’t buy your way in,” Rodrigues said. “You earn your way in through sustained excellence in academics and research that is so great that the elite of the country can no longer ignore it and want you to be a member of their organization.”






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