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Sunday, Apr 22, 2018
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O’Neill: USF makes name for itself with focus on future

They were a couple of days apart, but in a way they were also a half-century apart. Both happened recently on the University of South Florida Tampa campus.

USF broke ground on its $50 million, five-story, 100,000-square-foot USF Health Heart Institute — the one that will combine advanced research and technology with state-of-the-art cardiovascular care. The one where high-tech collaboration will be aimed at helping those with heart disease, diabetes and stroke.

This is a big deal. This is who USF is these days. Less than two years ago it opened the cutting-edge Center for Advanced Medical Learning Simulation (CAMLS) in downtown Tampa. It’s not your parents’ — or grandparents’ — USF any more.

A few days prior to the Heart Institute groundbreaking, the USF Alumni Association hosted members of the charter graduating class. The class of 1963. By all accounts, the charter alums were more than impressed.

This was not the USF of their experience. This was no longer the Sam Gibbons’ brainchild whose four nondescript buildings actually looked like they belonged on what had been the World War II practice bombing range of Henderson Air Field on Fowler Avenue property.

No, this was 21st century USF — a half-century removed from all those “Sandspur U” and “Bottlecap U” pejoratives.

The two on-campus events spoke volumes about USF — then and now.

USF, formally founded in 1956, was the first independent state university conceived, planned and built in the 20th century. The first day of classes — Sept. 26, 1960 — commenced with 1,997 students. It was called the University of “South” Florida, which seems a geographical misnomer now, because back then it literally would be the southernmost state university.

More to the point, however, the politically pragmatic Rep. Gibbons was looking for the most expansive labeling, one that would help ensure the support of legislators in southern districts, most of which were well within USF’s area of operation.

Speaking of Gibbons, he had initially earmarked the private University of Tampa as a hit-the-ground-running candidate to be the Tampa Bay area’s first state university. But this was still the Jim Crow South, and UT’s board of trustees wasn’t about to go public — with all those integration subplots.

Now, as we know, USF is one of the biggest universities in the country. It has 48,000 students in its system, more than 41,000 of whom are on the Tampa campus, and it’s become a regional economic engine for the Tampa Bay metro market. With a budget of $1.8 billion, USF has an annual economic impact of $3.7 billion on the region.

Last fiscal year USF, which is ranked 33rd in the country in research expenditures by the National Science Foundation, was awarded more than $400 million in research contracts and grants. In fact, the Chronicle of Higher Education recently ranked USF as the fifth fastest-growing research university in the U.S. in the first decade of the 21st century. USF ranked 10th in the world among all universities granted U.S patents in 2011.

The erstwhile “Sandspur U” is now a global player. It’s also Exhibit A for universities that are the future of higher education: Institutions that are synergistically positioned in major metro markets. Not doing research in a college town, but being able to apply it in the immediate community — whether it’s mass transit technology, marine science advances or teacher-training development.

Where once the number of USF buildings could be counted on one hand, there are now more than 100 as members of the Class of ‘63 saw in person. Where once USF had all the ambience of a drive-through industrial park, it now has all the higher ed trimmings, including mature greenery, dorms, fraternities, sororities and on-campus magnets — from athletics to performing arts to cancer treatment.

It’s also one of the more diverse universities in the country, with a student body representing more than 130 countries. And, yes, the Bulls are in a Bowl Championship Series football conference and play their home games at Raymond James Stadium, a literally Super Bowl and National Championship caliber facility.

USF, as some of you may recall, used to be known as (merely) a “commuter school,” as if meeting the higher education needs of an urban, demographically older market was somehow a lesser calling than that of older, more traditional institutions. Tampa wasn’t Gainesville.

I sense that’s no longer such an issue.

Not when the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching lists you among the 2.3 percent of all universities who are in the top tier of research facilities. Not when you’re a key quality-of-life component of a major American metro market. Not when your current graduating class is 4,276 — and 50 years ago it was 325.

That was then. This is now. Is it ever.

Go, Bulls.

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