The University of South Florida was invited this week to join the Association of American Universities, a feat described as a major milestone by school officials. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

The University of South Florida announced Thursday it has achieved one of its major goals, more than 15 years in the making: joining the invitation-only Association of American Universities, a group of top-tier research schools.

The university became the second public school in the state to be invited to the 71-member association, joining the University of Florida. School officials wasted little time in accepting.

USF was one of six schools to receive invitations, including the University of Miami. Previously, only four universities had been invited to join over the past decade.

Invitations are extended based on many factors, including graduation rates, research activity, faculty excellence and the number of low-income students receiving federal Pell grants.

“This is a historic and momentous achievement for USF,” university President Rhea Law said in a news release. “Especially when considering we were founded in 1956, to now officially be recognized by our peers as one of America’s leading research universities is a shining example of our university community’s determination, innovative spirit and relentless pursuit of excellence. Reaching this milestone only strengthens our ambition to improve lives and positively shape the future of our society.”

The release said joining the association will allow USF to grow its research profile, putting researchers in a more competitive position to gain funding and help the school in recruiting “additional world-class faculty and students to the Tampa Bay region.”

Researchers at schools in the association perform 63% of the total amount of federally funded research, the release said.

In a message to the university community, Law credited those who came before her for setting the membership goal. She was a member of the board of trustees when it first became a USF priority 16 years ago.

“We earned this distinction because of the determination and relentless pursuit of excellence by our outstanding students, faculty, staff, alumni and other supporters,” she wrote.

She also thanked former USF President Judy Genshaft and former provost Ralph Wilcox for setting the “bold aspirations” and credited the school’s board of trustees, the state Board of Governors “and our state and federal elected officials for their ongoing support.”

Faculty Senate President Jenifer Jasinski Schneider said she was shocked because, despite the gains the university had made, Florida schools often operate with fewer resources than others.

The news, she said, came as a pleasant surprise during a time of low faculty morale over recent initiatives by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature to regulate classroom content and make it easier for faculty to lose their tenure status.

“This is not a reaction to or an indication of support for what’s currently happening,” Jasinski Schneider said. “This is not something that happens overnight, and certainly not something that’s happened since January…. This is an indicator of what we were saying — like ‘What are you guys doing? There’s nothing broken here.’”

Jasinski Schneider said the recognition is a sign of USF’s growing status.

“There’s nothing you can manipulate to make us AAU,” she said. “That prestige also puts us in the room when big conversations are happening across the prestigious universities in the U.S. and Canada.”

In the news release, Board of Governors Chairperson Brian Lamb, a former USF trustee, said he took pride in the achievement.

“This historic accomplishment is a tremendous milestone for USF, Tampa Bay, and this great state,” he said. “Membership in the AAU will provide students and faculty with new academic and research opportunities that seek to address global challenges, creating a transformational impact on generations to come.”

State University System of Florida Chancellor Ray Rodrigues lauded USF in the release for being “relentless in their pursuit of academic excellence.”

Members of the association pay an annual fee of $139,500 and participate in regular meetings, often taking stances on legislation and regulations related to higher education.

Divya Kumar is a higher education reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.