Less than two months on the job, University of South Florida president Steve Currall recognizes the institution’s enormous potential and appreciates its key assets. He also frankly acknowledges its financial challenges and Florida’s strong political grip on higher education. In the early going, expect Currall to simultaneously build on the solid foundation left by former president Judy Genshaft and use his different leadership style to continue to elevate USF’s academic stature and enhance its role as a regional economic engine.
First impressions are important, and they are positive in both directions. In a wide-ranging discussion with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board this week, Currall reflected a willingness to learn more about his new community and an appreciation for the warm welcome he has received around Tampa Bay. He sounded comfortable as a first-time president of a large public university, took direct responsibility for some key personnel decisions and answered questions with a mix of refreshing candor and understandable cautiousness, depending on the subject.
It’s healthy for USF and Tampa Bay to have a thoughtful newcomer’s fresh look at familiar issues, particularly following a popular predecessor who served a record 19 years as president. Currall recognizes Florida’s higher education system remains very politically driven from Tallahassee. He is well aware that the Legislature provided no new money this year for preeminence, the elite academic status USF shares only with the University of Florida and Florida State University. And he knows full well that lawmakers divided another pot of money between UF and FSU but left USF out. That is not particularly fair or good public policy, but Currall understandably avoided direct criticism of the lawmakers who hold the purse strings.
Instead, the USF president emphasized generating more philanthropic support for a university with a modest endowment compared to its enrollment. That can pay off in all sorts of ways, from giving the university more independence to create new programs to attracting faculty and students. Currall’s experience linking technology, entrepreneurs and angel investors also should be a significant benefit. As he succinctly points out, financial capital tends to follow human capital.
One of USF’s newest and brightest assets, of course, is the new medical school under construction in the heart of downtown Tampa’s massive Water Street development. Currall envisions the med school as one of those significant attractors for human capital that will flow into an urban area filled with opportunities to live, work and play.
Another obvious asset is the tidy campus of USF St. Petersburg, whose future remains a bit uncertain until the 2018 law requiring the consolidation of the university’s three campuses is fully carried out. Currall inherited this challenge and says "fears are not well-founded'' that USFSP will lose its unique identity. That’s fine. But he should be mindful that the 2018 law requires the College of Marine Science based in St. Petersburg to report to that campus, not to Tampa -- and a 2019 law designates USFSP as a branch campus with authority to shape its budget and hire faculty. Currall’s decision not to hire a new regional vice chancellor for academic affairs at USFSP understandably has renewed concerns about micromanaging from Tampa. The new president can ease those concerns if USFSP is treated well when the details of the consolidation plan are unveiled this fall.
Currall praises Genshaft for a smooth transition, and he appears to embrace evolution rather than revolution. The new president describes USF as a "courageous university'' that "is not afraid to have high aspirations.'' That is a bright north star to continue to follow.