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The new USF president is here — and he brought ideas

Steve Currall, the University of South Florida’s new president, intends to keep improving the metrics that have raised the school to “preeminent” status. But as he does that, and as USF’s three campuses consolidate, it will be harder for low-income and minority and students to get in. “I have, I think, a healthy respect for the complexity of that,” Currall says, adding he wants to maintain preeminence and improve diversity at the same time. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Jul. 5

TAMPA — He's met with student government leaders, hung artwork on the walls inside his on-campus home and twice dined at Ybor City's Columbia Restaurant.

A week into the job, Steve Currall is settling in as president of the University of South Florida. He sat down with the Tampa Bay Times to share his thoughts for now and the future.

Some priorities, like sorting out USF's new structure as it consolidates its three campuses, came with the job. Others are fresh ideas he brought with him.

He's already arranged them in order of importance: Things like faculty recruitment, diversity and making students feel more at home rank ahead of the on-campus football stadium that remains a dream for many.

Currall, 60, says USF is already in a good place — that's why he came here. It has momentum and is in position to excel. But he has plans to make it even better.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE:

"I'm thrilled": Steve Currall takes over as USF's seventh president

Steve Currall selected as USF's seventh president

His goal is to strike a balance between enhancing USF's academic standing and keeping the school accessible to a diverse body of students. He wants to grow a feeling of community, raise money for student scholarships and enhance opportunity on every campus.

In a line he's used again and again since interviewing to be USF's seventh president, Currall (pronounced cur-AL) aims to "increase the slope of the trajectory" the university is already on.

He knows consolidation will take up a lot of time in his first year or so as USF's leader. He inherited a lot of big decisions with looming deadlines.

One of the biggest has to do with how USF's three campuses will be organized once they come under the same umbrella as a united university in 2020. A final plan is due in a few months, but little is known about what is being planned.

Gov. Ron DeSantis recently signed a bill that requires USF to let its St. Petersburg and Sarasota locations retain autonomy over budgets, curriculum and hiring as "branch" campuses. What that will actually look like, though, is still unclear.

"There are questions about implementation … there's some concern and uncertainty about it," Currall said without offering any specifics about what USF leadership has in mind.

"It's also an amazing opportunity for us … to think about what is really the optimal structure for this university to be aligned and unified in a way that further elevates our visibility and our academic excellence."

The new president plans to spend at least 100 days on a "listening tour" of USF's three campuses. He says he wants to collaborate with faculty, administrators and donors to identify "synergies" that can be leveraged to enhance USF's offerings to students, as well as its standing in the higher education world.

"In the new consolidated structure," he said, "you're really opening up all of the resources of Tampa and St. Petersburg to the Sarasota students in ways that really have not been as apparent and not as available."

Raising USF's academic profile could come at a cost, if not done thoughtfully.

The university is already harder to get into than ever before, especially after USF Tampa reached "preeminent" status last year.

The designation, which is held by only three Florida universities, is driven mostly by student-performance data. And it's attached to state funding.

As USF's campuses consolidate, so do their metrics related to preeminence. That puts more pressure on the university to admit students who are high-performing. The process could edge out low-income and minority students, including those coming from Tampa Bay-area high schools.

"I have, I think, a healthy respect for the complexity of that," Currall said, adding that he is "deeply committed" to maintaining preeminence.

At the same time, he looks to preserve the access USF has had by providing more scholarships through fundraising. The more money the university can offer, the more competitive it can be in recruiting students from modest backgrounds, he said.

Accomplishing both goals will be a "fascinating balance to strike." But Currall says he's up to the task.

RELATED: It's harder than ever to get into USF. Some worry about the downside.

Recruiting diverse faculty is "at or near the top" of Currall's list of priorities, because they're the driving force behind any successful university, he said.

On Monday, Currall's first day, his first order of business was breakfast with distinguished faculty at USF Tampa. There was only one woman in the room. Everyone else was a white man.

Currall said Wednesday that he noticed the disparity immediately. He's done a lot of writing and research on women in leadership during his psychology studies, and wants to see more women leading at USF.

The president said he will be looking into the university's faculty demographics. He doesn't yet know where USF stands, but is sure there is work to do in recruiting women and people of color.

"One advantage we have is the Tampa Bay region ... which is this rich, global (place) with a great, rich tapestry of different communities," Currall said. "We'll try to leverage that as much as possible."

Student scholarships and faculty recruitment will come before funding for a football stadium in Tampa, which students have long been pushing for, the president said. There is a vision for one, but no set plan. He said he will look at parking on that campus, too, in response to students' complaints that there isn't enough.

In September, Currall will launch a task force charged with establishing "principles of community" for USF. It will be composed of a "broad cross-section of university stakeholders," he said.

The goal is to come up with a one-page document that captures USF's values, a sort of house rules.

"Shared sentiments, shared statements on how we interact with each other, how we respect each other, how we have civil discourse and how we debate, how we use evidence and things like that," Currall said. "I think that'll be a good journey for us to go on and hopefully help coalesce us as a community."

A sense of community isn't lacking at USF, he said. It's just of high importance to him.

It's easy for students to feel lost at such a big school, he said. So offerings that make it feel like home — like on-campus housing, mental health services and a visible president — are key to support their success.

"A feeling of community helps our young people navigate through," he said.

In fact, community is one of the main reasons Currall and his wife, Cheyenne, opted to live in the Lifsey House, just a short walk from the president's office. They wanted to convey their intentions to be present, active members of the USF family. They plan to attend performances and sporting events. He might even guest lecture sometime.

"Not only are we talking about building community with students and faculty and staff," he said, "we're in the community. We're living on the campus. We thought that was a neat adventure to be on as part of this role."

Contact Megan Reeves at mreeves@tampabay.com. Follow @mareevs.

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