Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition

Law sets framework for ‘preeminent’ universiti­es

The new status would grant UCF an extra $5 million

- By Gabrielle Russon Staff writer grusson@tribpub.com

Since 2013, the University of Florida and Florida State University have shared an elite status as “preeminent” research institutio­ns, giving them millions of dollars in extra state funding over other Florida public colleges.

Last week, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law the creation of a new tier known as “emerging preeminent” that officials say should help the University of Central Florida move toward the next level as well.

So far, only UCF and the University of South Florida qualify for the new status based on how they performed in several academic and research benchmarks. For UCF, it means $5 million more in funding for the next school year.

“Now, in a sense, we have a new mandate in Florida,” UCF Provost Dale Whittaker said. “The University of Florida and Florida State have a mandate to be Florida’s preeminent institutio­ns. UCF and USF now have a mandate to move toward that; to be Florida’s next two preeminent institutio­ns.”

The provost said it was realistic for UCF to fall in the same category as UF and FSU in five years.

“It won’t be easy,” Whittaker said. “We’re going to have to be very deliberate and very focused.”

In the coming months, UCF will determine how to spend the $5 million, possibly hiring top faculty, investing in student advising or in research, said trustee chairman Marcos Marchena.

Marchena said it will likely take years to move the needle and propel the university from emerging preeminent to the top tier.

“When is the best time to start?” Marchena asked. “Right now.”

Marchena said three to five UCF programs will get priority.

While STEM — science, technology, engineerin­g and math fields — will likely be a focus, Marchena said others, such as the university’s well-respected hospitalit­y management program, could also land on the list.

“One of our efforts for a long time,” Marchena said, “is to continue to enhance our already outstandin­g programs into some worldclass programs.”

Whittaker said that, in 2013, the school only hit one of the 12 benchmarks set by the state for deciding the most distinguis­hed public research universiti­es.

But this year, the UCF reached six, enough to qualify for emerging preeminent status. Those benchmarks included goals on students’ grade point average and SAT scores, sixyear graduation rates and research money spent in non-medical-science areas.

FSU and UF earned their status by hitting at least 11 of the same 12 benchmarks.

Whittaker said UCF is in striking range of meeting three goals it had failed to reach this year.

One, for instance, is maintainin­g a freshman retention rate of 90 percent. UCF is less than 1 percentage point away, Whittaker said.

Others are bigger challenges. UCF would need a $500 million endowment to hit one benchmark, but the school’s fund is currently at $145 million.

Earlier this year, Dean Colson, a member of the Florida Board of Governors that oversees state universiti­es, called UCF a “good” school but not a “great” one.

“Although UCF is a very good university with a terrific president and outstandin­g community support, I don’t believe UCF is a great university,” Colson said at the meeting when the state board approved the UCF’s downtown Orlando campus.

In a recent interview, Colson elaborated further on his comments, pointing out the university has added a medical school and is expected to open the downtown campus in 2018.

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