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USF's presidential search will start amid secrecy

A cyclist rides away from the Marshall Student Center at the University of South Florida, which is looking for a president to succeed Judy Genshaft. A search committee plans to come up with a list of finalists early next year, but the process up that point will largely be secret. [CHRIS URSO   |   Times]
A cyclist rides away from the Marshall Student Center at the University of South Florida, which is looking for a president to succeed Judy Genshaft. A search committee plans to come up with a list of finalists early next year, but the process up that point will largely be secret. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published Nov. 29, 2018

TAMPA — At some point during the upcoming nationwide search for a new University of South Florida president, a handful of finalists will emerge and the public will know their names. But the process leading up to that will be kept largely secret, according to a plan laid out Thursday by the search committee working to replace retiring president Judy Genshaft.

Candidates for the job will respond not to the university, but to a consulting company, Greenwood/Asher & Associates. After that, the names of viable hires will be passed to search committee members by phone to prevent any applicants' names from becoming public.

It's also likely that USF trustee Les Muma, chairman of the search committee, will travel to meet face-to-face with candidates who members are most interested in before finalists are chosen, said Jan Greenwood, president of the consulting firm.

Secrecy is a common and frequently controversial part of presidential searches at Florida universities. Among the more notable examples was the 2014 selection of University of Florida president W. Kent Fuchs, which employed charter jets, hotel reservations made under false names, special email accounts and other strategies designed to elude the public eye.

But keeping the candidates' names under wraps is essential, according to Greenwood, who has warned committee members in the past that Florida's public records laws, which are stronger than those in many other states, put USF at a disadvantage.

"Conversations will have to occur to get people to agree to put their name out in public," she told the committee.

USF will be competing against the likes of Michigan State University and the University of Minnesota, which are looking for presidents, too. And Greenwood argues that high-profile candidates could opt to bypass USF for a position at an institution in another state, where confidentiality could be guaranteed.

Eventually, though, serious candidates will have to let their names be known.

A handful of finalists for the USF job will be announced publicly sometime after the start of 2019, in what Greenwood called a "blitz-like" fashion. Up to seven people from her firm will assist the search committee with final interviews and as many as 18 reference calls per finalists, she said.

The finalists will then be presented to the board of trustees, which will ultimately name USF's next president ahead of Genshaft's July 1 retirement.

The person selected will have a tall order to fill, gauging by the official job description approved Thursday by the search committee. Nearly two pages long, it details what candidates should bring to the table.

"A successful candidate must have the vision, commitment and leadership skills to achieve the university's ambitions for sustain preeminence; to lead a world-class faculty; and to foster the growing national reputation of the University of South Florida in all aspects of its education, research and service mission in a changing global economy and higher education environment," says the opening general statement.

After that comes a list of bullet points covering a variety of topics including diversity and inclusion, communication skills, faculty and student retention, and the ability to develop community and business relationships.

The document says the next president should be an academic who understands research and how to work best with university-affiliated health centers, as well as how to balance a multi-campus university like USF.

The description could be tweaked once more by USF's board of trustees on Tuesday, when the search committee will present its work. Members spent the last month gathering input from students, faculty, staff, alumni and others in the community, at listening sessions and through an online survey.

Once officials approve the description, Greenwood/Asher & Associates will add it to an informational packet being developed by USF's marketing team, and the package will be used to recruit candidates.

Greenwood, the firm president, also told search committee members to begin considering ways USF can prepare for new leader's arrival even before he or she is chosen. Those who follow longtime university presidents like Genshaft often leave the job after only a few years, she said, and it's frequently because of gaps in communication when they start.

"There are a lot of moving pieces, both at the macro level and the micro level," the consultant said, adding that organized, comprehensive on-boarding processes that connect outgoing and incoming presidents can be used as an "insurance policy on longevity."

Muma said he's confident Genshaft, who he said plans to stay in Florida, will be open to helping her successor.

"I would be shocked if she is not willing to do whatever it takes to make the next president successful," he said. "The new person may not want to be smothered, but they want to know Judy is there."

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