‘A Giant Leap’: USF joins top echelon of research universities – the AAU


WIth spring commencement behind her and the quieter summer sessions underway, USF President Rhea Law had no reason to suspect Tuesday, May 23, would be anything but business as usual. 

And then her phone rang.

On the other end of the line was Barbara R. Snyder, president of the Association of American Universities.

“She was so happy to invite our university to join the AAU because they had been looking at us for quite a while,” Law recalls Snyder saying. 

“Membership in this association, the most prestigious in higher education, is by invitation only, requiring a three-fourths majority vote by member institutions. This serves as undeniable recognition by our peers that USF is one of the nation’s top-tier universities.”

Law accepted immediately and was permitted to share the news with a few select leaders before the official announcement by AAU on June 1. Excited, she called Will Weatherford, chair of the university’s board of trustees. No answer. She texted and emailed — “CALL ME!” 

Four hours later, they finally connected. Weatherford was stunned. He’d seen this day coming, yes — but sometime in the future.  

“Everybody had that feeling,” Law says. “They believed this would be something we achieved further down the road, but the velocity at which our university is moving is truly extraordinary. This achievement signals that the hard work of our students, faculty and staff has made an incredible impact.”

Later, at a press conference announcing the news, Weatherford would say, “Receiving an invitation to join the Association of American Universities is one of the most significant accomplishments in University of South Florida history … USF has taken a giant leap into the future.”

While achieving the goal was never in doubt, the unexpected timing caught many by surprise. President Emerita Judy Genshaft literally jumped out of her seat with joy, and Faculty Senate President Jenifer Jasinski Schneider, ’89 and MA ’92, asked in disbelief, “Are you serious? Are you kidding me?”

Only one person got it right when Law said, “I’ve got great news! Guess what it is!” Vice Provost Pritish Mukherjee had been closely monitoring USF’s performance metrics. He knew.

AAU membership marks another milestone on the university’s journey of continuous improvement and pursuit of excellence.

With six new members added in 2023, AAU is now composed of 71 institutions in the U.S. and Canada. Prior to this year, only four institutions had been added in the last decade. 

USF is the fifth youngest institution, one of only six members founded after 1950. The university is also the first public university in Florida to be invited in nearly 40 years, since the University of Florida joined in 1985.

When assessing potential new members, AAU considers an institution’s research activity, faculty excellence, the quality of educational programs, graduation rates and the number of lower-income students who receive Pell Grants.

For Law, achieving this milestone was a powerful reminder of the importance of setting goals and working together to achieve them. 

“To have identified AAU as being a goal for the University of South Florida way back in 2007 when I had just become the chair of the board of trustees, and to now be in this position and to have achieved it, is the most fulfilling thing I can think of,” she says, her voice catching with emotion. 

While USF is already among the country’s most research-intensive universities and one of the world’s most prolific generators of U.S. patents, AAU membership will provide more opportunities to respond to the world’s greatest challenges. Members earn the majority of competitively awarded federal funding for basic research — 63% or $28.8 billion.

Membership will also enhance student and faculty recruiting, which will attract more businesses to the Tampa Bay region looking to tap into the university’s resources.

Most important, it gives USF a seat at the table in advancing higher education and laying the scientific foundation that helps keep the nation’s economy strong and its citizens healthy and safe.

Our journey has just begun.

A black and white aerial photo of students walking across the Tampa campus, a view of the College of The Arts buildings in the background, sidewalks making a lattice across the plaza, circa 1966.

Students walk across campus, circa 1966. [Photo: USF Library archive].

A historic black and white photo of USF’s first president John Allen riding with another man in an open jeep, surveying the undeveloped site for USF’s Tampa campus, scrub grass, sand and trees on a dirt road.

USF’s first president, John Allen, views the site for the new university from a jeep. [Photo: USF Library archive].

  1. Timeline

    1. USF Established

      Dec. 1, 1956

      “It [the site] was a mass of weeds, scrub oak and swamp that was attractive to alligators.

            – John Allen, USF’s first president

    2. Full Accreditation


      We receive full accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

    3. First Doctoral Degree

      May 25, 1971

      A black and white photo of a young Richard Houbrick, holding a small sea shell up to a magnifying device.

      St. Leo Abbey monk Richard S. “Joe” Houbrick, PhD Biology, is awarded our first doctoral degree. Houbrick, who died in 1993, went on to work as a researcher at the Smithsonian Institution.

    4. Sponsored Research Grows

      May 1987

      Sponsored research grows more than 135%, to $23.3 million, since 1978.

    5. Research I University


      The Florida Board of Regents names us a Research I university – at the forefront of research and innovation.

    6. AAU Goal


      Rhea Law is surrounded by Board of Trustees members on the cover of USF Magazine, Fall 2006.

      USF Board of Trustees Chair Rhea Law, ’77 (now USF’s president) and President Judy Genshaft (now president emerita) establish a goal of membership in the Association of American Universities in our five-year strategic plan.

    7. Fastest-Growing University

      Aug. 28, 2009

      The Chronicle of Higher Education names us the nation’s fastest-growing university for federal research funds.

    8. Student Success Task Force

      November 2009

      A 100-person Student Success Task Force is created to accelerate our student success intiative. The Task Force’s 2010 report provides the blueprint for our Student Success movement, contributing to record gains in student retention and graduation rates.

    9. 9th for Patents


      View of USF’s ‘patent wall’ in the Research Park on the Tampa campus. Hundreds of plaques representing USF’s patents.

      We rank ninth in the world among universities for the number of patents (83) received from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 2010.

    10. Eliminating Graduation Gap

      March 1, 2017

      A zoology class on St. Pete campus, circa fall 2018. Students work in a lab, wearing blue lab gloves.

      We rank No. 1 in Florida and No. 6 in the nation for eliminating the graduation gap between Black and white students.

    11. Six-Year Graduation Rates

      September 2017

      A smiling female USF graduate shows the Bull horn U gesture, in USF regalia on graduation day, in front of the Yuengling Center.

      We lead the nation in improvements to six-year graduation rates, according to The Chronicle for Higher Education.

    12. Preeminent University

      June 2018

      A delegation of 25 USF personnel gathered on a staircase at UCF at a Florida Board of Governors meeting.

      The Florida Board of Governors recognizes us as Florida’s third Preeminent State Research University based on 12 benchmarks, including student success and faculty research. The designation recognizes our achievements and provides additional funding.

    13. Phi Beta Kappa

      August 2018

      View from above of the first USF Phi Beta Kappa membership class with blue stoles, posed around the USF seal.

      We are awarded a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the oldest and most prestigious national honor organization in the country.

    14. Top 50

      September 2019

      We break the top 50 in national ranking for best public universities, jumping to No. 44 in the U.S. News & World Report.

    15. AAU

      June 1, 2023

      President Rhea Law speaks to celebrating group in Traditions Hall, Alumni Center.

      We join the AAU, the top echelon of U.S. and Canadian public and private universities.


Portrait of Prasant Mohapatra, USF Provost and Executive Vice President of Academic Affairs.

“USF’s AAU invitation directly reflects our high-caliber faculty, accomplished students, and dedicated staff. USF has had a tremendous trajectory as a leader in innovation, scholarship and research, and our membership in the AAU further solidifies this. I’m excited about the future as we look to enhance our robust academic enterprise to support our faculty, provide new opportunities for students, and impact the communities we serve.”

USF Provost and Executive Vice President of Academic Affairs

“As an AAU member, USF joins the ranks of the most prestigious universities in the country. Our Research and Innovation team looks forward to new opportunities to pursue more grants and awards, escalate research funding, increase commercialization of intellectual property, and further strengthen USF’s partnerships with industry. AAU is an opportunity to forge a future of research and innovation that tackles the biggest challenges of our time and delivers the greatest impact to society. USF is ecstatic and poised to contribute with our partners.”

Interim Vice President for Research & Innovation
President & CEO of the USF Research Foundation, Inc.

Portrait of Sylvia Wilson Thomas, Interim Vice President for Research and Innovation and President and CEO of the USF Research Foundation, Inc.

Portrait of Mike Griffin, ’03, Life Member and Vice Chair of the USF Board of Trustees

“Our AAU invitation is more than an important milestone, it’s an inflection point for our university. The USF community, Tampa Bay region and our state will benefit in ways we once could only dream about.”

Vice Chair, USF Board of Trustees

“AAU is recognition of the high-quality scholarship and cutting-edge research of USF faculty. It acknowledges our outstanding programs and the excellent students who choose USF for their academic pursuits. With an invitation to AAU, the University of South Florida joins other prestigious universities in the U.S. and Canada to collectively shape the future of higher education and to impact local and global communities.”

Professor, Literacy Studies; USF Faculty Senate President

Portrait of Jenifer Jasinski Schneider, ’89 and MA ’92, Professor of Literacy Studies and USF Faculty Senate President.

AAU By the Numbers

Graphic of AAU by the numbers