The FIU and South Florida communities on Monday celebrated the university’s rapid explosion on the national stage. In a year that more than any other has garnered wide recognition, unprecedented exposure and heightened prestige for the less-than-50-year-old urban research institution, FIU has seen its star rise to a level once unimagined — even as university leaders assert they’re just getting started.
In a you-ain’t-seen-nothing-yet address to a crowd of students, faculty, staff and other supporters, President Mark B. Rosenberg captured the ethos of a vibrant, vital university known for, as he says, turning the “impossible into the inevitable.”
“All that makes our university unique — our excellence, our grit, our vision, our agility — is being recognized for what it is,” Rosenberg told the assembled. “It’s a real formula for success. FIU is on the rise. Make no mistake about it.”
His words echoed a video, released just after midnight on Monday, in which he delivered news of an historic moment for the university: FIU had jumped 17 spots in the National University Rankings. In the gold standard recognition by U.S. News & World Report, FIU reached No. 78 on the list of public institutions.
National ranking and top in the state
The milestone follows years of FIU’s growing influence on a variety of fronts, from grant-funded research to student success. The latter, in particular, figures heavily in the new ranking.
Over the past seven years, FIU has made investments and implemented dozens of innovative programs that have resulted in dramatic improvements in student achievement. The six-year graduation rate improved 18 percent and the four-year graduation rate has more than doubled during that time.
Getting there has taken dedication and intentionality, says Dean Colson, chair of FIU’s Board of Trustees, the volunteer group that advises the university on critical matters and helps determine the institution’s direction. He spoke after the festivities about the collective efforts needed to propel a university as large as FIU.
“It’s possible because of the commitment of our administration and faculty to make certain that we have achieved excellence without compromising social mobility,” Colson said. “And we’re able to do that because we’ve had the support of the state, and that’s been critically important to making this all possible.”
Much of that support comes from the Florida State University System. In June the system’s Board of Governors announced FIU’s No. 1 performance-based ranking among the 12 institutions over which it presides. The placement acknowledges FIU’s across-the-board improvement in areas such as student retention and graduation. Notably, FIU earned the highest score ever recorded by a Florida university in its performance evaluation.
“Our students are diverse,” said Student Government President Alex Rubido of what he believes represents a particular strength of FIU. Of the current 58,000-strong enrollment, approximately 85 percent represent minorities and more than 65 percent represent Hispanic Americans.
“They come from different backgrounds,” Rubido said. “They bring in new perspectives that help achieve the metrics of the 21st century, which is where the Florida Board of Governors is going. They’re looking to the future, and FIU is the future of university education.”
Closely aligned with student success is the concept of social mobility, for which U.S. News this week rewarded FIU with a top five ranking among public universities in the country.
FIU has closed the gap between low-income students and their peers from higher-income familes by offering targetted support and programming. Students who qualify for federal Pell grants (those living at less than twice the poverty level), for example, now have higher six-year graduation rates than those not receiving such financial assistance.
Financial vote of confidence
This upward trajectory of lower-income students in June brought exciting, meaningful validation from an unexpected source. Seattle-based philanthropist and author MacKenzie Scott made an unsolicited, unrestricted gift of $40 million to further propel FIU’s commitment to help every single individual succeed.
“We looked for two- and four-year institutions successfully educating students who come from communities that have been chronically underserved,” Scott said at the time.
The breath-taking gift followed on the heels of one from a donor closer to home and with likewise grand intentions: The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, headquartered in Miami, gave $10 million to the College of Engineering & Computing. The commitment will boost the capacity of the college’s school of computing and information sciences, already a regional leader in turning out graduates to fill jobs within South Florida’s burgeoning tech industry. The Knight gift will make possible educating even more students and help fast track the establishing of Miami as a world-renowned technology hub — a priority goal of FIU alumnus Francis Suarez, the Mayor of Miami.
Research at the cutting edge
Beyond its critical local impact, FIU has stepped up its national and global influence as well, largely to the credit of its faculty.
“The amazing strides we’ve made in student success is primarily due to our faculty who have done very innovative things and are always willing to adapt and be student-focused in everything they do,” said Kenneth G. Furton, provost and executive vice president. “Our faculty are truly exceptional. I’m actually just in awe to be a colleague of the amazing faculty that are here.”
Such excellence in teaching has resulted in U.S. News rankings for academic programs in business, computer science, nursing and public health as well as law. Furthermore, professors have distinguished themselves as leading experts in a wide variety of fields. Research expenditures, which indicate the level of work taking place in labs and in the community, are pushing $250 million annually, Furton says, with an expected $400 million by 2025.
Work in areas such as disaster mitigation, tropical biodiversity, childhood mental health and cybersecurity has commanded multi-million-dollar grants as well the attention of industry and government officials.
U.S. News ranked FIU No. 17 in the category of most innovative public universities.
In patent production, FIU this year ranked 42nd among institutions granted U.S. utility patents, according to the Top 100 Worldwide Universities Granted U.S. Utility Patents in 2020 report by the National Academy of Inventors and the Intellectual Property Owners Association. Licensing revenue has increased dramatically in recent years.
In the nation’s capital, the FIU in DC office connects FIU researchers with elected officials looking for solutions to national and global problems. Such engagement has results in FIU securing Congressional earmark requests and National Defense Authorization Act Requests, which together represent more than $25 million, in support of projects related to environmental research, Central American security and more.
Another measure of the influence FIU now yields beyond its campus borders: The Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs this month earned formal recognition as a leader in career-focused, graduate-level international affairs education as well outstanding research and publications by faculty. The Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs elected to make the Green School a full member, the only university in Florida to achieve the prestigious designation and one of only 25 in the United States and 15 abroad to gain membership through a rigorous evaluation process. Members stand at the forefront of producing tomorrow’s civic and government leaders in an increasingly complex and interconnected world. FIU is the youngest university to earn election into the assocation.
Looking ahead to the next chapter
FIU’s rapid ascent has left many wondering what the upstart institution has in store for the coming decades. Times Higher Education ranks FIU third best in the U.S. among a pool of the world’s 414 universities 50 years old or younger.
According to the publication, FIU’s research puts it in the company of “some of the nation’s oldest and most respected public and private institutions with a Carnegie R1 designation for very high research activity.”
Rosenberg made clear that FIU had no intention of resting on its laurels as it continues a relentless drive to the top.
Added Colson, chair of the Board of Trustees, “South Florida is one of the great communities in the world. It deserves a world-class university, and we have a world-class public research university right now. It’s important for the whole community, it’s important for the state and it’s important for the whole country.”