After year as interim leader, Martin Tadlock takes chancellor reins at USFSP

USF St. Petersburg Interim Regional Chancellor Dr. Martin Tadlock, left, and Student Body President David Thompson, address students in an open forum in 2017. LARA CERRI | TIMES
USF St. Petersburg Interim Regional Chancellor Dr. Martin Tadlock, left, and Student Body President David Thompson, address students in an open forum in 2017. LARA CERRI | TIMES
Published August 22 2018
Updated August 22 2018

The interim leader of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg is dropping the 'interim' from his title, bringing a welcome dose of stability to the school in a time of great change.

As regional chancellor, Martin Tadlock will help steer the university through a momentous chapter in its young history, as USFSP will soon consolidate with USF Tampa and USF Sarasota-Manatee, becoming a regional campus of a single USF.

Such a complex transition requires diplomacy, and it's Tadlock's collaborative spirit and efforts to help students succeed that most impressed USF System President Judy Genshaft, she wrote in a campuswide email Wednesday.

Tadlock, 64, has agreed to serve for three years. He will make $315,000, plus a performance bonus yet to be determined, and report to Genshaft. After June 2021, he'll be eligible for a semester of professional development before returning to an active faculty position.

"To me, there is no higher honor than serving you," Tadlock wrote in a campus email. "You've heard me say many times that we stand on the shoulders of those who come before us. Thank you for allowing me to stand on yours, and I hope I can return the favor."

His contract letter from Genshaft outlines a few lofty goals for the coming year, first and foremost to "provide proactive, collaborative leadership" during the coming consolidation — all while making sure USFSP's graduation rates and other metrics keep climbing. USF Tampa may have qualified for the lucrative state honor of "preeminence" on its own this year, but under the merger, USFSP's numbers will have to keep pace to keep those bonus dollars flowing.

Tadlock is also tasked with keeping a much-needed 375-bed residence hall project on budget and on schedule.

"Really, it's a vote of confidence in the university by President Genshaft that we are headed in the right direction," Tadlock said in an interview Wednesday.

He initially stepped up as interim chancellor in September 2017 in the tumultuous aftermath of Hurricane Irma, when well-liked former chancellor Sophia Wisniewska was ousted for what Genshaft called her "lack of leadership."

Tadlock, who had only arrived in summer 2016 as the campus's top academic official, soon found himself responsible for leading the waterfront university of roughly 5,000 students.

Meanwhile, some faculty members saw Wisniewska's departure as the inevitable takedown of a leader who had become perhaps too loyal to the St. Petersburg school, which has long struggled for autonomy under system leadership based in Tampa.

Tadlock inherited this balancing act — and then came the consolidation proposal.

It was last year that lawmakers decided the USF System should shed its separate accreditations and function as one USF. With USF Tampa's star on the rise, they reasoned, a merger would spread the wealth and prestige across the region.

The idea proved controversial, especially in Pinellas, where many saw it as a hostile takeover.

With concessions to autonomy then built into the legislation, lawmakers put the USF System on a tight timeline to pull off the merger, which requires finessing of degree programs, campus identity, admissions and more.

"I like Dr. Tadlock and believe he will be a good and effective regional chancellor if given the chance to be," Mayor Rick Kriseman said on Wednesday. "My hope is that he is afforded the autonomy needed to continue to move USF St. Pete forward."

Rep. Chris Sprowls, who led the consolidation charge, said Tadlock has faithfully served the school and will now help make it into a top research institution.

Tadlock said consolidation is a chance to pursue new academic programs, from health care to the arts, including some doctoral programs. The school will double down on research and push to recruit students who are poised to succeed — after all, USFSP must keep its metrics within preeminence targets — but will also strive to remain accessible, such as through scholarships.

In Genshaft's campus email, she said Tadlock has impressed her with his work setting up systems that deal with roadblocks students face on the road to graduation. She cited a 10 percentage-point increase in the campus's retention rate this year.

Tadlock never imagined he'd lead USFSP, but then again, at one point he thought his career would never evolve past sitting on the back of a truck shoveling asphalt. Raised poor in a rural pocket of North Carolina, he worked in tobacco and okra fields, selling tomatoes on the roadside with his siblings.

Access to higher education remains a key issue for the chancellor, who was the Air Force, stationed in Turkey, when he took his first college course. Later, with children, he took six years to complete his bachelor's degree at Utah State. He eventually went on to get a Ph.D. and work in educational administration.

He came to USFSP from Bemidji State University and Northwest Technical College in northern Minnesota, where he was provost and vice president for academic and student affairs.

On Wednesday, the day after signing his new contract, Tadlock showed up at work at the not-unusual time of 4:40 a.m. He was still feeling the excitement from this semester's convocation, when the ballroom was bursting with over 300 new students and their families. Admissions staff had told him that a remarkable 80 percent of freshmen had USFSP as their first choice.

"We will continue to be USF St. Petersburg," Tadlock said. "We will continue to be distinctive."

Contact Claire McNeill at cmcneill@tampabay.com.

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