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We Need To Talk About USF, Part 1

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There’s a lot going on right now at USF, we need to discuss what’s going on.

NCAA Football: Houston at South Florida Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

[This is the first in a series of stories from guest writers to give their perspective about what has been going on at USF. Here’s Part 2 by Dr. Matthew Morrison and Part 3 by Jamie. Things are not right, and we need to talk about it.]

Let me start off by saying I didn’t want to write this, but we have a lot of problems. So buckle up. Lots of people have a lot to say and I’m grateful I was asked to share my thoughts. I’ve been active in this community for over 20 years so I think I have the institutional knowledge and professional experiences to have an informed opinion.

Football, despite being really embarrassing at the moment, isn’t the issue. Its failures, however, are a symptom of a disease that permeates through almost all departments. Right now over on Fowler Avenue, there’s a big, fat echo chamber. Call it a self-licking ice cream cone or whatever you want to call it, but things over there are not fine. They haven’t been fine in a while, but you wouldn’t know it by talking to anyone in the front office of the Patel Building. It’s easy to think you’re doing amazing if you only surround yourself with people who tell you you’re amazing, even when you’re not.

USF may be the fastest growing institution in the country, and it may have hit all of its benchmarks to stay “Preeminent.” But that doesn’t matter if its culture is broken.

That should make you sad and also maybe even angry. Why? Because for the last 20 years, USF has told us they’re on the right track. They tout themselves as a preeminent university, one that’s young and hungry and isn’t like the others. They’re different and really proud of it. They spare no expense telling everyone how proud of themselves they are too. The arrogance is honestly astounding, and unfortunately it doesn’t reflect reality. It’s actually really gross.

And when you’ve been around as many people in leadership positions as I have—for my job and as a volunteer—, eventually it stops making you sick and you just start tuning it out for the sake of your own sanity. You stop showing up to stuff, volunteering your time, and giving money. This is a pattern a lot of us have fallen into. Yet few in leadership seem to care, because the self licking ice cream machine is always there to lie to them and say they’re fabulous, and doing a great job. They are not fabulous. They are not doing a great job.

There’s a striking disconnect over on Fowler Avenue between words and reality. I’m running out of patience, and so are a lot of people. I have to ask: if they’ve made such great choices, why are there so many empty seats at games? I hosted a suite two years ago for work colleagues and was embarrassed at the empty student section and red seats.

If they think they’re so inclusive and welcoming, why have over 20% of girls dropped out of Panhellenic recruitment this year, and over 200 last year? One in five won’t make it through the process… that’s the lowest percentage in the state. Peer institutions of our size experienced an uptick in recruitment registrations. USF has almost half the amount in 2021 as they did in 2018.

If they have such a commitment to diversity, why aren’t there more people of color in tenured positions or in top administrative positions? Why are so many faculty feeling disheartened and angry? Why were known “problem children” and toxic leaders given contract extensions or renewals? And what is up with your Diversity Office?

If they care about students so much, why did it take four days for the President to address mass sexual assault allegations on social? If they truly value their graduates, why do they have angry and vocal alumni all over the country who feel alienated and disrespected? If they are truly a global organization, why is the entire alumni board from mostly three counties in Florida?

If they’re so popular, why isn’t there more game day merch in Target? I can’t even buy a USF Vineyard Vines tie for my husband in the store closest to the university,BUT I can find one for his small liberal arts college right next to UCF and UF merch. If they recruit so well, why is the fall academic profile not even second in the state for incoming freshman? And, perhaps most importantly, if there’s such a great culture for students, why does the campus look like a ghost town on the weekends?

Why does Greek Village not have any visitor parking for alumni? Why make it excruciatingly hard for people to volunteer? And while we’re at it, why schedule sorority recruitment on the same weekend as football AND during Week of Welcome? If you want to create more barriers for women of color, athletes and first generation college students to join a sorority, this is an almost perfect way to ensure the smallest enrollment numbers possible.

I have 17 years of teaching and mentoring college students under my belt and it is my informed assessment that says that USF is just not on par with the other schools when it comes to student involvement and campus culture. There was a time they were getting there, but they’ve lost their way and it’s costing them talent and costing our students life changing experiences. I am bringing up Panhellenic recruitment as one of hundreds of examples I could share. There are so many more examples out there that we could talk about. Maybe someone else can write about that.

Leadership loves saying how different and special they are. Different doesn’t always equal better. So my question is this: Are we really that awesome, or is that just something leadership says to make themselves feel better in meetings? Serious question.

Maybe, and hear me out — there are things we can learn from other institutions and things we can do better. Maybe it’s time we see preeminence for what it is — vanity metrics that don’t correlate to culture, student engagement, or alumni affection.

Right now we can’t make a solid case for jumping to a better conference. We can’t even make a solid case for the top students in the state to pick us over other schools. We don’t have a stadium for goodness sake, or students to fill the one we rent! We can’t even deconflict student events with football games. Our national alumni engagement is weak and grievances are all over Twitter. These are basic things that a university of this size and age should not be dealing with.

I saw this quote today that a friend posted (I think she broke up with her boyfriend) and I think it applies here: “A smart man doesn’t tell you how smart he is. A rich man doesn’t tell you how rich he is. A tough man doesn’t tell you how tough he is. But a con man does.” Three guesses who con man is in this situation. I’m personally tired of being a mark. You should be too.

The truth is, we’ve been had. That narrative of being different and special is a sham, and the community is starting to see it. Right now we deserve what we have. If we want more, we need to have a serious conversation about what it takes to get there, and not let gaslighting voices drive the conversation. We cannot let them lie to us anymore about how great they are and how bright the future looks. Quite frankly, it’s insulting.

When delusion drives strategy, things don’t end well. Leadership has one option, and that’s to drop the con. Recognize that what they’ve been doing isn’t working. Stop lying to themselves and to us. It’s getting second-hand embarrassing.

I hope they don’t rationalize these recent failures with some Simone Biles level mental gymnastics but I fear they might. Over the years I’ve heard campus leaders rationalize all sorts of failures and shortcomings: “We don’t need to be in a better conference. We are the university of the future. Our students are different and we don’t need what other schools have.” I’ve already started to hear some of these themes re-emerge over the last few days, and while well-meaning, they are unfortunately not helping. We are not the university of the future. We are getting left behind and we must demand better. We must demand change.

I hope this latest embarrassment is a forcing function. They desperately need to adjust their strategy and become more inclusive. But it means they have to acknowledge the world as it is and not how they wish it to be. Institutional Delusion is very real and ignoring problems is not doing us any favors. They have some very important choices to make, and I hope they choose change.

P.S. We must protect Michael Kelly at all costs.