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Preeminence Doesn’t Matter

One USF lifer thinks this whole “preeminence” debate is silly, and that the Lifsey House should focus on students instead of metrics.

Dr. Karla Stevenson-Mastracchio is a communications consultant, an off-and-on adjunct professor at USF, as well as an alumni of the Class of 2003. She has done crisis management consulting for the federal government, and received her doctorate from the University of Iowa in strategic communications.

Preeminent status is the golden carrot that the Florida State Legislature dreamed up a few years ago. It set benchmarks that few schools could meet, partly because there is limited funding so if every school achieves preeminence, every school would get the millions that go along with it. But it’s also partly because higher education is a caste system, even if no one likes to admit it. Most states only have one or two flagship universities so this is a way to keep within that tradition.

But here’s the thing: no one thought USF would hit all the benchmarks, so when lawmakers changed the rules at the end of the game, it’s no wonder that people are upset. What they did was shady, unethical, and not in the spirit of education or transparency.

USF needs to learn a valuable lesson: that none of this matters. None of this will make you “elite” or attract “elite” students. That preeminence is an impossible goal for USF and schools who also have preeminent aspirations.

Preeminence is the ultimate game of misdirection. Aside from the gift of millions of dollars – it’s a terrific little game of smoke and mirrors designed to prey on the egos of university presidents and cause them to focus on the wrong things. While Judy Genshaft and Co. are spending energy making sure that things like graduation rates are where they need to be and research is where it needs to be, they’re neglecting other things that will make greater strides putting USF on par with UF and FSU.

Preeminence isn’t going to help boost USF’s reputation. It isn’t going to turn USF into UF. Most people don’t know what the heck it means to be preeminent. It’s an abstract concept that means something only if you work in higher education or state and local government, which is a very small percentage of the state’s population. “I’m going to send my daughter to USF next year! You know they are preeminent,” said no one ever.

Parents care about sending their kids to a school where they will be safe, make friends, and get a good education that will lead to a good job or graduate program. Students care about much of the same things. Rather than hitting benchmarks USF needs to focus on tangible things that will put USF on par with FSU and UF in other ways than on paper. USF needs to learn to take best practices from its competitors.

As much as USF likes to tout itself as a model of higher education of the future, it’s still losing top talent to UF and FSU because a lot of that top talent want a more traditional university look and feel. USF’s best hope for survival is to focus on STUDENT success by literally focusing on students.

If they really want to be on par with UF and FSU they are going to need to pick an identity and stick with it – and that means making some hard choices. Do they want to be Commuter U or Resident U? Access U or Elite U? If they want to be Resident U – they need to first do most recruiting out of the surrounding counties and accepting students who will live, work, and play at USF.

I’d encourage Judy and Co. to take a long weekend and stay at UF, USF, and FSU for a few days. Walk around after 10pm. See each university through student eyes, and forget about spreadsheets and hitting benchmarks set by the state. It will be painfully clear that one of these things do not look like the other.

Start there. Start with student success that exists beyond a checklist set by the State of Florida.