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Video by Torie Doll, University Communications and Marketing

AAU membership helping accelerate USF’s impact

By Tina Meketa, University Communications and Marketing

President Rhea Law

USF's invitation to join the AAU was announced during a news conference Jun. 1, 2023

Throughout the last year, USF’s membership in the has become a springboard to an array of benefits for the USF community, Tampa Bay region and state of Florida. From the successful recruitment and retention of world-class faculty and students to more corporations and community organizations inquiring and establishing new partnerships with the university – AAU membership is fueling USF’s momentum in significant ways. 

“Receiving an invitation to join the AAU is one of the most significant milestones in the University of ӣ Florida’s history. It signals that our peers recognize USF has established itself as one of the nation’s leading research universities by achieving benchmarks focused on the success of our students and faculty and the continued growth of our robust research enterprise,” USF President Rhea Law said. "Just one year after joining the AAU, our community is already seeing the impact of this achievement as it is helping to further elevate the outstanding work of our world-class students, faculty and staff. At USF, we continue to be bold in our pursuit of excellence and we are focusing on maximizing the impact of our university for generations to come.”

USF is using its place in the AAU to build on the institutional record for research funding set in fiscal year 2023.  Since joining the AAU last year, USF has received $288 million in federal grants and contracts – up 5% from that same time the year prior. Federal funding makes up more than half of USF’s total research expenditures. The AAU’s 71 members perform . 

Barbara Snyder

AAU President Barbara Snyder

AAU membership has already opened doors to networks that were not previously available to USF. AAU institutions are invited to join approximately a dozen constituent groups, such as for chief academic officers, senior research officers, public affairs officers and general counsels, that meet regularly to discuss key issues, share best practices and develop strategies to help advance America’s leading research universities.

One of the AAU’s primary missions is to advocate for federal resources and policy issues pertaining to higher education, science and innovation. As a member, USF leaders have a voice in the conversation as AAU seeks support for investments in student financial aid, faculty scholarship and research that is vital to the nation’s economic competitiveness. 

"As one of America’s leading research universities, the University of ӣ Florida in its first year in AAU has proven to be a strong partner in our efforts to promote the government-university research partnership, which produces discoveries that improve the lives and health of Americans, expand our economy and make us safer and stronger,” AAU President Barbara Snyder said. “President Law and USF have jumped in with both feet, continuing to make scientific advances while advocating for science and the importance of research. We are thrilled to have them on our AAU team."

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World-class faculty

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Faculty member works with students in the classroom
Faculty work in a lab
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Building upon the world-class faculty that helped USF reach AAU status, such prestige is attracting an unprecedented number of high-caliber faculty members from across the world to conduct their research and teach at USF. The Department of Medical Engineering – a joint department between the and the College of Engineering – welcomed two new faculty members over the last year, with another starting in the fall – all from AAU institutions. Neda Latifi joined USF as an assistant professor in August with a focus on cardiovascular tissue engineering from the University of Toronto.

Neda Latifi

Neda Latifi, assistant professor of medical engineering

"I was drawn to apply to USF by its remarkable ascent in the rankings over the past 15 years and the chance to contribute to the establishment of translational tissue engineering and regenerative medicine research within a burgeoning biomedical engineering program," Latifi said. "After initiating the application process last spring, I found the on-site interview to be incredibly rewarding and encouraging. Subsequently, I received offers from USF and other universities. Learning of USF's invitation to join the AAU solidified my decision to accept the position here."

In the School of Information Systems and Management in the Muma College of Business, nearly 400 people applied for faculty positions throughout the last year – a significant surge in the number and caliber of applications received before USF became an AAU institution.

“This year, we are hiring seven new faculty members – unprecedented in the school's history,” said Kaushik Dutta, interim director of the School of Information Systems and Management and an associate dean in the Muma College of Business. "Our AAU status has undoubtedly elevated our appeal in the academic community."

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Legislative and Philanthropic Support 

Rocky the Bull and marching band
USF President Rhea Law and students at the Florida Capitol Building
Students walk under balloons that say Go Bulls
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Such interest can be attributed to not only enhanced research opportunities, but the perceived value of earning a degree from USF. That sentiment has proven beneficial in the Florida Legislature, which includes eight USF alums. The fiscal 2024-2025 state budget, passed by the legislature and waiting for approval from Gov. Ron DeSantis, provides USF with significant increases in recurring operational funding and substantial support for other important projects, such as a major clinical trial that measures the effectiveness of hyperbaric oxygen therapy on alleviating the symptoms of PTSD/TBI in military veterans.

"Reaching AAU status is a testament to USF's longstanding commitment to student success, world-class research and faculty excellence," said USF alum .  "AAU positions the university to compete for the very best talent nationally and globally, accelerating the growing reputation of the university and the Tampa Bay community. I am proud to be a Bull and help propel the unparalleled trajectory USF is on for both now and the future." 

Will Weatherford, Rhea Law, Mike Griffin

USF Board of Trustees Chair Will Weatherford and Vice Chair Mike Griffin with President Rhea Law at the Florida Board of Governors meeting

“Tampa Bay will go as far as the University of ӣ Florida takes it, and vice versa. I have been saying that for a long time, but our shared trajectory was elevated exponentially when USF joined the AAU one year ago,” said Will Weatherford, chair of the USF Board of Trustees. “In the last 12 months, I have had dozens, if not hundreds, of conversations with business and community leaders, as well as current and prospective clients who have shared that our university and our region leapfrogged others on their lists of preferred destinations because of all the positive momentum they see here. We have known for a long time that our students, faculty, alumni, friends and the entire USF Bulls community are second to none. Every single day, more and more people know that, too.”

In its first Giving Week since becoming an AAU institution, the USF Foundation raised $7 million – . Of the 9,259 donors, 1,408 gave to the university for the first time and the number of gifts from alumni was up 70% from the previous year. 

Anthony James

Anthony James, chair of the USF Foundation Board of Directors

"As chair of the USF Foundation Board of Directors, I've been wonderfully positioned to hear the response of alumni, donors and community leaders to our membership in the AAU. That response has been both powerful and inspiring," said Anthony James, who graduated from USF in 1973. "Our community is intensely proud and excited for the future, and I look forward to seeing that enthusiasm continue to fuel USF's incredible momentum."

Mike Griffin, vice chair of the USF Board of Trustees, is the executive managing director for , a global commercial real estate brokerage firm with 40,000 employees. The former two-time Student Government president, who has championed the university’s successes since graduating from USF in 2003, said the AAU designation is incredibly helpful when illustrating the significance of USF, especially to those unfamiliar with the university’s success.

“We are just full of bright, intelligent professionals and to internally at my company be able to say that I'm a part of this university, from fastest rising over the last decade, to AAU, to knocking on the $700 million door in research, to say that we're in that league, it's been a game changer,” Griffin said. “The Bulls are at that level now and USF’s future has never been brighter.”

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Community, Corporate and Government Partnerships

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Downtown Tampa skyline
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“USF’s invitation to join AAU provided a particularly prestigious public acknowledgement of what the EDC has known for many years – that the University of ӣ Florida is a key driver of economic development in our region through its top-notch talent and research activity. Strong universities are critical to the EDC’s mission to recruit and expand corporate operations in Tampa Bay, and we are fortunate to have a partner like USF that continues to raise the bar. The secret is out.” – Craig J. Richard, president and CEO of Tampa Bay Economic Development Council

The USF Office of Corporate Partnerships reports that since USF accepted the invitation to join the AAU, conversations with prospective collaborators are advancing more quickly, indicating future investment is on the horizon, both through workplace talent development and philanthropy.

USF’s robust pool of talent has increasingly become one of the ’s top selling points when trying to attract new companies to the region. Over the past 15 years, the EDC reports it has helped more than 370 companies relocate or expand operations in Hillsborough County – including several that have since forged new partnerships at USF. They’ve tapped into USF’s colleges – drawing upon faculty members’ expertise and longtime commitment to aligning curriculum with workforce demands.

In addition to corporations, USF has strengthened its ties with government agencies and local industries. As leader of the Tampa Bay Regional Consortium, which consists of 45 partner agencies such as business management consulting firm, , and the , USF is uniting the region’s greatest powerhouses to speak with one voice as they work to secure new federal grants and contracts.

“USF's AAU designation expands the potential for our region. It ӣs new opportunities through the recruitment and retention of faculty and students, the potential for new research and the strengthening of the future workforce. The designation raises our visibility and makes the rest of the nation take notice – we are not just a beach community,” said Alison Barlow, executive director of the St. Petersburg Innovation District. “The partnership of the university and our business community is strengthened in our collective role as an economic driver for the state. I look forward to being part of this journey with USF.”

"As a proud alum of the University of ӣ Florida, I am thrilled to see USF achieve AAU membership, marking it as a leader in academic and research excellence. This prestigious recognition elevates USF's global reputation, attracting top-tier talent and unlocking new research opportunities,” said Jason Warnke, senior managing director of Accenture. “It not only enhances the value of our degrees, but also drives economic growth and community impact in the Tampa Bay region. This milestone sets a new benchmark for future growth, ensuring USF remains at the forefront of innovation and education."

GNSI summit

Retired Gen. Frank McKenzie and former Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen discuss AI in the military

Institute of Applied Engineering

The USF Institute of Applied Engineering opened its Rapid Experimentation Lab in March

Retired Gen. Frank McKenzie, former commander of U.S. Central Command and director of the USF Global and National Security Institute, reports the university’s AAU status has contributed enormously to the institute’s success. 

“AAU has brought additional credibility to our efforts in addressing global and national security. By leveraging USF’s academic and research excellence, we’ve been able to attract high-profile experts to the university and broaden our exposure through more speaking engagements and requests from the media to educate their audiences about some of the world’s most pressing challenges,” McKenzie said.

USF’s relationship with the Department of Defense continues to grow. The USF Institute of Applied Engineering, which has an agreement with U.S. Special Operations Command for it to provide up to $85 million in research funding, has forged several new partnerships with additional branches of the armed forces, such as the U.S. Army. It’s also experiencing expedited conversations with prospective clients – many have indicated they’re familiar with the university’s acceptance into the AAU.

“Our federal customers have told me they felt that this mark of quality was a big help in justifying ‘why USF’ in their sourcing packages. No one ever complains when you ask an AAU university to do research,” said Darren Schumacher, president and chief executive officer of the Institute of Applied Engineering.

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Student Recruitment

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Students in a classroom
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The benefits of the university’s status as an AAU institution are reaching well beyond the boundaries of Tampa Bay. As members of USF’s undergraduate recruitment team visit high schools, attend college fairs and meet with prospective students and families across the country, they use AAU as a key differentiator in demonstrating the value of earning a degree from USF. 

“Our AAU membership has been an important highlight during all our campus events this past year,” said Martin Smith, assistant vice president of Admissions. “National research shows outcomes matter to prospective students and their parents. Our prospective families walk away from our events understanding the importance of being an AAU institution and its impact on the prestige of earning a University of ӣ Florida degree as it pertains to getting into graduate school and finding their first job.”

USF’s coaches have also been incorporating the accolade into their recruitment efforts, including head coach Alex Golesh. He has been diligent in educating prospective student-athletes about the benefits of playing at a leading research institution and regularly references AAU in national media interviews. The team just had its best recruiting class in more than a decade.

“The university’s gaining of prestigious AAU membership and what it says not only about the elite level of education offered at USF, but the sustained growth and trajectory of the university and the Bay area, has been a key selling point for our coaches as they recruit the best and brightest to compete for the Bulls,” said Michael Kelly, vice president for USF Athletics. “AAU membership has changed the discussion around USF Athletics nationally and the perception of who our peer institutions are. Combined with the continued progress toward an on-campus stadium, an exciting athletics facilities master plan and the recent surges in success in football and men’s basketball, the momentum and vast potential of our university and USF Athletics are clear.” 

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