TAMPA — Before being picked as the University of South Florida’s next president Friday, Steven Currall made a bold statement to close his interview with school officials: “I want the job.”
If chosen, he promised, USF would be his last stop as an educator. Leading the university would become his “great life mission.”
About an hour later, he got a call. The job was his. And within minutes he was standing back inside Sam Gibbons Traditions Hall, before the university trustees who chose him, holding his hand in the shape of USF’s trademark bull.
HOW IT HAPPENED: Read Megan Reeves’ Twitter feed from today’s decisive interviews.
“USF’s trajectory is truly unlike any other public university in the country, and there is so much potential for future growth,” Currall, 60, said grinning. “There are no limitations to what we can accomplish together. … I’m humbled and delighted to be a member of your community.”
He will be USF’s seventh president, succeeding Judy Genshaft, who came to the post in 2000 and will retire effective July 1.
Currall is provost and vice president at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. He emerged from four finalists who were culled from more than 30 applicants during a presidential search that began last fall.
The vote Friday by the USF board of trustees was unanimous.
The decision must be ratified by Florida’s Board of Governors, which oversees the State University System. The board is scheduled to vote on Currall’s nomination next Thursday.
A Kansas City native, he has held his current post at SMU since 2016. The private research university enrolls less than 12,000 students — a fraction of the nearly 50,800 students enrolled at USF for the Fall 2018 semester.
But Currall has worked at larger institutions, including the University of California-Davis, as well as previous employment abroad in leadership positions at University College London — experience that could boost USF’s ambitions to become a global university and attract more international students.
Currall led the University of California Davis Graduate School of Management from 2009 to 2014, when he became a senior advisor to the university’s chancellor. In his elevated position, he spearheaded plans to develop a satellite campus devoted to food and nutrition research and could be located in the vacant rail yard on the northern edge of downtown Sacramento.
But in 2015, long before the project could get underway, Currall announced he was leaving California to take the job at SMU.
At USF, his contract will be for five years. His salary will be based on a study commissioned by USF of competitive salaries for university presidents around the country. The study suggests setting Currall’s base salary at between $550,000 and $600,000.
His compensation package also will include a $100,000 relocation fee, a $12,000 annual car allowance and an $80,000 housing allowance.
“Dr. Currall brings a wealth of experience and knowledge that will sustain the strong momentum we have as a thriving global research university and propel us to even greater preeminence,” board of trustees chairman Brian Lamb said in a letter Friday to the USF community.
Lamb cited several attributes, including Currall’s experience helping to lead the Global Health Institute at the University of California’s 10-campus system. He also described the president-elect as “impressive and engaging.”
Consultant Jan Greenwood, who facilitated the search for USF, said reference calls to Currall’s current and previous employers yielded high praise for his leadership.
The people she spoke with used words like “visionary” and “bright” and “goal-oriented,” she said. Others confirmed he is adept at fundraising and works well with faculty.
Currall is a psychological scientist by trade, specializing in a field known as “organizational psychology.” As a professor, he has taught topics such as innovation, emerging technologies, negotiation and corporate governance.
Lamb noted in his letter that Currall was “the lead author of a book on university-business-government collaboration, he has served on several editorial review boards, and he is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.”
Currall arrived for his interview shortly before 1:30 p.m. Friday, the last of the four finalists to appear before the trustees. But it soon became clear that he might be their top pick for USF’s next president.
He answered with ease, often touching on topics like student success, diversity and the importance of fundraising — the same points officials have deemed key to the university’s success, especially as USF prepares to consolidate its three campuses.
Currall often used the word “we” when talking about USF’s efforts to advance as a top public research institution in Florida. He shared ideas about launching a “strategic renewal” process, similar to one he completed at SMU, that might bring USF’s priorities more clearly into focus during such a transformational time.
He told trustees that he strives “to be self confident but not self important,” and he committed to listening to members of the USF community to promote a climate of shared governance.
He also vowed to spend time on all of the university’s three campuses to develop relationships with students and faculty, as well as members of the surrounding communities.
The university is an “anchor” for the Tampa Bay region, Currall told trustees. And that’s a message USF must share far and wide to grow support.
“You all have a great story to tell,” he said. “I would love the opportunity to get out there and help sell that to prospective students and community members.”
The other finalists were Wanda Blanchett, interim provost and executive vice chancellor for academic affairs at Rutgers University-New Brunswick; Debasish Dutta, a former chancellor at Rutgers; and Jeffrey Vitter, a former chancellor at the University of Mississippi.
“The university had a terrific set of leaders and I wish the president all the best as the community moves forward,” Vitter said in a phone interview after the trustees’ decision. He said he wished Currall well and added: “I very much appreciate the opportunity to spend time and learn so much about the up-and-coming university, and I know the future will hold even greater things in store.”
Blanchett and Dutta could not be reached for comment.
Currall’s employer, SMU, issued a statement congratulating him. “We are proud of Steve and know he will serve with distinction, just as he has done here at SMU,” it said.
While local officials don’t know much about Currall, their initial reaction to his selection was generally positive.
Tampa mayor Bob Buckhorn said he looked forward to meeting Currall as soon as possible.
“Judy Genshaft has been a terrific partner for me and I think Tampa and USF are on the verge of something special together,” the mayor said in a statement. “Having a top-tier research university in your city gives you an economic engine and a competitive advantage that most cities do not enjoy. I would expect the next president to be as outwardly focused as USF and Tampa write their next chapter.”
In a statement provided through a spokesman, St. Petersburg mayor Rick Kriseman said he looks forward to meeting Currall. “My hope is that he is always honest in his dealings as it relates to (the city),” the mayor added. “We will be rooting for his success.”
Leaders at USF’s two smaller campuses said they were pleased with Currall’s nomination as well.
St. Petersburg chancellor Martin Tadlock said Currall was a “good choice,” adding that his background in organizational behavior will come in handy as officials rework the structure of the institution. Chancellor Karen Holbrook, who represents the Sarasota-Manatee campus, called it a “wise decision for the university” that will serve her campus well through consolidation.
Pinellas County commissioner Charlie Justice, who has been following the search process, said he didn’t go in-depth researching candidates. But based on resume and credentials, Currall seemed to be in the “top tier of the pool” that USF drew, he said.
“We have to hope that it was the right decision for university because the university is so important to our region,” Justice said.
Genshaft, the outgoing president, has been absent from the week’s interviews. But she was there late Friday, to introduce and congratulate Currall.
She revealed two slim, black boxes. One held a USF-green tie for Currall, and the other a coordinating silk scarf for his wife, Cheyenne.
“I know that you will bring us to our next and most accomplished era ever, so we look forward to your leadership in July. ” Genshaft said, then lifted her hand to form the bull symbol before exclaiming, “Go bulls.”
Together with the rest of the room, Currall lifted his hand, too.
Staff Writers Anastasia Dawson and McKenna Oxenden contributed to this report. Contact Megan Reeves at [email protected]. Follow @mareevs.
STEVEN C. CURRALL
Current job: Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Southern Methodist University
Education: Doctorate in organizational behavior from Cornell University; master’s in social psychology from the London School of Economics and Political Science; bachelor’s degree in psychology from Baylor University.
Personal: Born in Kansas City, Mo. Married to Cheyenne Currall, who is vice president and executive advisor for global advancement at the University of Texas Southwestern.