Incoming Florida Senate President Joe Negron, whose plans for his two-year term focus heavily on higher education, wants to see more of the state's universities achieve "national elite" status.
Although the University of Florida is currently the only state school in the prestigious, 62-member Association of American Universities, Negron, R-Stuart, believes there can be more.
"My personal vision is that our universities in Florida will, at some point in time, be thought of as national elite destination universities," he told the Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system, last week. Negron named the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan, among others, as examples.
To be invited to join the AAU, a university must meet high standards in criteria including competitively funded federal research grants, along with faculty awards, fellowships and memberships in the national academies, doctoral degrees, postdoctoral appointments and undergraduate achievement.
Supporters of AAU membership say the organization's universities drive economic development. In 2013, AAU members were awarded 59 percent of all federal research and development grants made to universities, a total of $23.4 billion. They issued 3,460 patents and 3,068 technology license agreements, employed 710,226 people, and generated $152 billion in operating expenses. They had 35 members in the top 50 universities for producing venture capital-backed entrepreneurs.
Negron noted last week that the best Florida students often go out of state to such universities, with their parents gladly paying the higher costs.
"And my vision is that over time --- it won't happen in two years, but we can get a really good start toward that --- we'll have students in Wisconsin and Michigan and Georgia and Texas that will find tremendous programs of great distinction in Florida, and that we'll be recruiting students into those programs," he said.
University of South Florida Provost Ralph Wilcox said he was "thrilled" that state leaders "recognize that for the third most populous state in the nation, the state of Florida deserves more than one AAU institution. In fact, if you look at the top ten most populous states, the only state with a single AAU institution is the state of Florida."
California, the most populous state, has nine schools in the AAU. Texas, the second, has three. New York --- which Florida recently surpassed in population --- has six.
Florida State University Provost Sally McRorie said the southeastern United States as a whole is under-represented in the AAU. Georgia and North Carolina each have two members, Louisiana and Tennessee have one apiece --- but Arkansas, Alabama, South Carolina and Mississippi have none.
To many, an obvious in-state candidate for the AAU is FSU, where President John Thrasher --- Negron's former Senate colleague --- is working toward national elite status.
In 2013, the Legislature created the Preeminent State Research Universities Program, which provides millions in additional funding to state institutions that meet at least 11 of 12 standards for success. The Board of Governors quickly granted preeminent status to UF and FSU.
But Negron --- who hopes to steer $1 billion in new funding to higher education during his presidency --- said every state university can point to "centers of excellence" on its campus.
"I want the universities to compete for national elite status," he said. "I'm not going to hand-pick one."
McRorie said that while FSU would love to receive an invitation from the AAU, its mix of disciplines differs from land-grant schools like the University of Florida. She compared FSU to Indiana University, an AAU member that stresses the arts. She also noted FSU's success with the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, its increasing federal research dollars and its new interdisciplinary degree at the College of Medicine.
"We're a different kind of institution, and I think we're dedicated in many ways to the greater good," McRorie said.
Meanwhile, the Board of Governors last week granted "emerging preeminence" status --- along with $5 million --- to USF, which meets nine of the 12 benchmarks for full preeminence.
Wilcox said he expects the university to achieve full preeminence soon by meeting additional standards, including a requirement that 90 percent of freshmen return to school the following year --- which USF could reach as early as this fall --- and a benchmark calling for a six-year graduation rate of at least 70 percent, which the school could achieve by 2017. And he called USF's health science programs a "juggernaut."
He also agreed with Negron that several state schools could reach "national elite" status, including FSU and the University of Central Florida.
"Nothing would delight me more than to see multiple Florida universities advance to positions of prominence in the national landscape," Wilcox said.