One of these four finalists will be USF’s next president

The group will move on to interviews with university leadership. The president will be picked Friday.
Published March 18
Updated March 19

After five months of searching for a new president, the University of South Florida on Monday picked four finalists to be interviewed for the job this week.

One will be named USF’s seventh president Friday. But a quick series of interviews with university leadership comes first. Meanwhile, the public can offer feedback online.

The 15-member search committee, which selected the finalists from a list of 33 total applicants, will conduct individual interviews Wednesday. On Thursday, each finalist will visit USF’s three campuses for hour-long “candidate conversations” led by committee members.

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Friday the finalists will interview with the USF board of trustees, which will pick one of them to succeed 18-year president Judy Genshaft that afternoon. She retires July 1.

Of the four finalists chosen, none are from Florida, and two recently left leadership positions elsewhere amid controversy. The search committee did not rank them, or publicly speak at length about why each was chosen.

Instead, the finalists were picked by three groups of committee members who met in a cordoned off area in Sam Gibbons Traditions Hall on USF’s Tampa campus.

In an interview after the meeting, USF trustee and search committee leader Les Muma told the Tampa Bay Times he is pleased with the narrowed pool of applicants.

All four finalists have connections to institutions in the prestigious Association of American Universities, which he and other leaders have long hoped USF will be invited into, he said. Each has served in at least one high-level leadership position, has experience working with lawmakers and is familiar with multi-campus systems like USF.

“I am very, very comfortable that we’ve got four very competent leaders,” Muma said. “Anybody we pick will be able to take our university to the next level.”

The finalists are:

Wanda J. Blanchett

Wanda Blanchett [Rutgers University]
Wanda Blanchett [Rutgers University]

Blanchett, 53, is the interim provost and executive vice chancellor of academic affairs at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, as well the dean of institutions graduate school of education.

At the meeting Monday, search committee member Debbie Sembler praised Blanchett for meeting all the qualifications for the president’s job, which the committee set forth in November. She noted that Rutgers is a public research university, like USF.

“She is a star in our eyes,” Sembler, a former USF trustee, said of Blanchett. She declined to elaborate after the meeting.

According to Blanchett’s application materials, she has been at Rutgers since 2014, when she was hired as a dean. With a doctorate in special education and a master’s degree focused on educating children with severe disabilities, she teaches classes focused on issues related to educational inequity in urban cities.

Blanchett’s resume mentions her reputation for securing grants and donations, and organizing efforts to increase both enrollment and diversity at Rutgers. The institution is part of the AAU, Sembler pointed out Monday, and also multi-campus, like USF.

Calling Blanchett a strong candidate, Muma said in an interview: “Even if she doesn’t make it in this round, she will be a university president one day.”

Steven C. Currall

Steven Currall [Twitter]
Steven Currall [Twitter]

Currall, 60, has been provost and vice president for academic affairs at Southern Methodist University in Dallas since January 2016.

Prior to that, he was the chancellor’s faculty advisor at the University of California, Davis, a public research university that is part of the AAU. Like USF, both institutions have multiple campuses.

Currall “brings a lot of prestige" to the list of finalists, search committee member and former USF trustee Rhea Law said Monday. Upon recommending him, she called him “significantly more qualified” than other candidates she reviewed.

According to Currall’s application, he earned a doctorate in organizational behavior from Cornell University and holds a master’s degree in social psychology. His resume mentions his success in research and securing of millions of dollars in grants.

At UC Davis, for example, Currall led the development of a plan to reach $1 billion in annual research expenditures, Law pointed out Monday.

“We were very impressed with him,” she added.

Debasish “Deba” Dutta

Debasish Dutta [Rutgers University]
Debasish Dutta [Rutgers University]

Dutta, 61, is a professor of engineering at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, the same institution finalist Blanchett comes from.

He formerly served as chancellor there, starting in the summer of 2017, but left the job after only a year in July. His departure followed a disagreement with Rutgers president Robert Barchi, who asked him to resign, according to NJ.com. He returned to the university a year later, after taking a sabbatical, the news site reported.

After Monday’s meeting, Muma said in an interview that he is “comfortable” with what he knows about Dutta’s departure from Rutgers.

“We would not bring him in if we didn’t think he was a great leader,” the trustee said.

Prior to arriving at Rutgers in 2017, Dutta was the provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at Purdue University for about three years. Before that, he led the graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign after teaching as an engineering professor for about 15 years.

Jeffrey S. Vitter

Jeffrey S. Vitter [Associated Press]
Jeffrey S. Vitter [Associated Press]

Vitter, 63, is a computer science professor at the University of Mississippi, after resigning as the school’s chancellor Nov. 9.

Why he left the position, which he took in 2015, was never made clear, according the Clarion Ledger in Jackson, Miss. But the newspaper reported speculation that it could have been related to one of three things: Vitter’s fear of not having his contract renewed, an NCAA investigation he arrived in the middle of, or a run-in he had with the benefactor of the university’s journalism school.

Whatever transpired, his abrupt resignation at the University of Mississippi is “cause for concern,” trustee and search committee member Byron Shinn said at the meeting. But Muma pushed off the comment, saying he talked with Vitter and liked him. Then committee members voted unanimously to pick the finalists.

As with Dutta, Muma told the Times Monday that he is okay with Vitter’s past. He said more about both situations should come to light in interviews this week.

Before stepping down as chancellor, Vitter boosted fundraising for the University of Mississippi and hired the institution’s first vice chancellor to oversee diversity, according to his resume. He previously was provost and executive vice chancellor at the University of Kansas for about five years. He holds a doctorate in computer science from Stanford University.

• • •

The last time USF chose a president was in 2000, when Genshaft emerged from a list of seven semifinalists. At the time, she was the 51-year-old provost/vice president for academic affairs at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She had previously been a dean at that university’s school of education and an associate dean at Ohio State University.

Going into the rest of the week, Muma said he hopes USF will find a successor that will carry on all that Genshaft has led the university to accomplish.

“Right now, I think any of the four could do the job,” he said. “It’s a matter of what the board of trustees, as a group, wants.”

Contact Megan Reeves at [email protected] Follow @mareevs.

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For more information on the week’s events or to submit feedback on the candidates starting Wednesday, visit usf.edu/7thpresident.

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