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With a Friday deadline to choose a president, USF sprints to find out more about the candidates

USF presidential search committee members Braulio Colon, left, Kathy Arthur and Rick Piccolo listen to candidate Jeffrey Vitter during Vitter’s interview Wednesday at the Sam & Martha Gibbons Alumni Center on the Tampa campus. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]
Published Mar. 21

Click here to read this story in Spanish.

TAMPA — The University of South Florida on Wednesday entered the final stretch of its search for a new president with mostly surface knowledge of the four people who emerged earlier this week as finalists for the job.

Officials acknowledged that the four had been selected from a field of 33 applicants mostly by using glowing resumes and other materials provided by the candidates themselves. If members of the school's search committee wanted more information, they could Google it, a search consultant said in an interview.

A more in-depth look — including comments from references, supervisors and other colleagues from current and previous jobs — is not expected to be ready until Friday, when the USF board of trustees is scheduled to choose a new president. And only after that will the person picked be subject to a state-mandated background check that would search for any legal skeletons.

So, on Wednesday, the candidates' interviews with the search committee provided the fullest picture yet of the style and philosophies each finalist might bring to the job.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: One of these four finalists will be USF's next president

Wanda Blanchett, a top official at Rutgers University, stunned the committee with an intensely personal account of her own education and how it opened her eyes to the importance of making higher education accessible to students from all backgrounds.

Steven Currall, a provost and vice president at Southern Methodist University, impressed committee members with details about his fundraising efforts and ideas about capitalizing on USF's unique strengths.

Debasish Dutta, a former chancellor at Rutgers, said he wants to connect with students, and sees himself attending an entry-level Spanish class alongside them. He touted his commitment to transparency and building relationships in the community to further USF's reach.

Jeffrey Vitter, a former chancellor at the University of Mississippi who left that post more than a year early with essentially no public explanation, defended his decision. He also addressed other controversies that unfolded at the school under his watch, and called the USF presidency a "dream job."

The university has set up an ambitious schedule to follow Wednesday's interviews. Visits and discussions at all three USF campuses were scheduled for Thursday, and interviews with the USF board of trustees will consume most of Friday.

Once those events conclude at about 3 p.m. Friday, trustees will meet to make a final decision. It is unclear when or in what manner they will review what looks to be a large volume of referencing information being compiled this week by search consultant Greenwood/Asher & Associates.

For each of the finalists, the firm is calling at least 18 references, including supervisors, peers and direct reports going back as far as 10 years, according to firm president Jan Greenwood. That work began Monday and will not conclude until Friday, she said.

"There is a lot more that goes on once the board (of trustees) decides who they are focused on," Greenwood said Wednesday, adding that by Friday, the firm "will have completed enough to respond to whatever the board needs."

Credit, criminal, litigation and other background checks required under state law will be completed by another company, Mintz Global Screening. Those would be completed by the time the Board of Governors, which oversees the State University System, votes on the selection at its next meeting, scheduled for 2 p.m. March 28 at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee.

USF trustee Les Muma, who leads the search committee, said he has not yet been told when or in what format officials will receive the information collected by Greenwood and her staff. Either way, he has no qualms about voting Friday.

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"I have no idea whether I'll get documents or not," he said Wednesday. "(Greenwood's) reputation depends on her doing these checks. I trust her."

Greenwood declined to share specifics about how she goes about her referencing work, saying only that "it varies." She also would not say how much of the process had been completed Wednesday.

At Muma's request, search committee members shared only positive thoughts on each finalist following the conclusion of Wednesday's interviews at USF Tampa's Sam Gibbons Traditions Hall.

All four were praised for having experience at institutions in the prestigious, invitation-only Association of American Universities, which USF hopes to join. Committee members also celebrated that each is familiar with multi-campus systems like USF, with some even mentioning ideas about the university's pending consolidation.

Dutta, 61, interviewed first. He entered the room seemingly confident, leaning back in his seat before the committee.

"I've done almost every administrative job that is in the academy," he said in his opening statement. "In all of my administration … I have done very well, and there is a deep desire in me to now look at the opportunity here, at USF."

Dutta was named chancellor of Rutgers University's flagship New Brunswick campus in the summer of 2017 but stepped down in July after just one year on the job. The move came after the school's president Robert Barchi asked him to resign, according to a report by NJ.com.

Now a professor of engineering at Rutgers, Dutta addressed the resignation Wednesday, after Muma asked if there was anything in his past he should explain. Dutta called the situation a "structure issue."

"The president made it known that the Rutgers chancellorship is unlike the traditional chancellorship at other universities," he said. "The responsibility and the authority is not the same. … What it does is it forecloses the kind of impact I wanted to make there."

During Dutta's year-long tenure as chancellor, in January 2018, it was announced that the university's athletics department reported a deficit for the 2017 fiscal year of $47.4 million — the highest ever for the Big Ten Conference school.

News of his departure as an administrator came just as criminal investigators accused eight Rutgers football players of stealing credit card numbers linked to university accounts, spending roughly $11,000 from the publicly-funded institution's coffers for their personal use, according to NJ.com.

Even after Dutta's resignation, Rutgers faced criticism for agreeing to continue paying the $480,000 annual salary he earned as chancellor during a year-long sabbatical from the institution, New Jersey Advanced Media reported. Rutgers was not contractually obligated to provide Dutta with the hefty payout, and the decision prompted one New Jersey assemblyman to introduce a resolution chastising the public institution for bankrolling former employees.

On Wednesday, though, none of those pieces of Dutta's past were discussed at USF. Instead, he impressed committee members by saying he would approach the job through the "lens of student success," particularly when it comes to consolidation.

He expressed interest in the "distinct mission" each campus has, a nod to the "branch campus" designation some have suggested to keep strong leadership in place on campuses in St. Petersburg and Sarasota.

Prior to arriving at Rutgers, Dutta was the provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at Purdue University, his alma mater. In his three years there, he also served as the institution's chief diversity officer, building a "diversity action plan" that later won the university an award, he said Wednesday.

Before Purdue, Dutta led the graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, after a three-year stint at the National Science Foundation that followed a 15-year engineering professorship at the University of Michigan.

Dutta is currently employed as an "academic administrator" at Rutgers, a university spokesman said. His sabbatical leave ends on July 1, after which Dutta is anticipated to return to the university as a faculty member in the School of Engineering.

Vitter, 63, was second to interview. He pulled his chair close to the table in front of him, folding his hands with fingers intertwined. After a brief introduction, he went straight into explaining why he resigned as chancellor — the top administrator — at the University of Mississippi in November.

"I was brought in to be a change agent," he said. "But I made the mistake of underestimating, really, the level of entrenchment and lack of common agreement at Ole Miss."

He said he didn't spend enough time before taking the job in 2015 to broaden his leadership team. And much of the "human capital" he did have was spent dealing with ongoing tensions at the university over racial issues related to Mississippi's Civil War history, and an ongoing NCAA investigation, he said.

"That attention really drew away … from academic issues," Vitter said, adding that despite the multiple controversies, Ole Miss marked its best three years of fundraising during his time as chancellor.

Committee members praised the finalist's 38 years at institutions in the AAU. Professor Robert Frisina called him an "engaging communicator" while others praised him for visiting USF Tampa's student center on Tuesday.

Blanchett, 53, was the third interviewee Wednesday — and the one who elicited the most emotion. At one point, USF trustee and search committee member Byron Shinn choked up and later called her "believable" when the committee debriefed.

"The integrity came through different with her," Shinn said. "There was a human feel to it."

Blanchett grew up poor, she said. But loving parents and many mentors helped her gain the quality education that has helped her achieve her accomplishments to this point.

Blanchett has worked as interim provost and executive vice chancellor for academic affairs at Rutgers University-New Brunswick since January 2018, a position she took on after four years as dean of the university's Graduate School of Education. There, she also teaches classes focused on educational inequities in both traditional and special needs classrooms.

"I really like that she spoke about the people she's worked with," USF Professor Kathy Arthur told the committee at the conclusion of interviews. "She didn't use 'I' a lot. She spoke more about 'we.'"

Blanchett spent a lot of time asking committee members about consolidation, taking a strong stance for the "branch" campus designation. She said it's important that students and faculty on USF's campuses in St. Petersburg and Sarasota feel respected, "not just through consolidation, but into the future."

Returning to the topic of student access, Blanchett said she has ideas for USF to expand its reach into K-12 classrooms, to make the university visible to all kinds of students.

In closing, she said: "I don't think you will find another candidate who will get up every day and work as hard to try to make sure that every little boy and every little girl in this region, regardless of where they started in life, can find opportunity here."

Currall, 60, interviewed last. Committee members were wowed at his track record of fundraising for universities, which he said began when he was 23 years old.

With adequate funds, a university can serve as an "engine of economic development," he said, adding that increasing USF's impact in surrounding communities would be a top priority for him as president.

"My hope would be that USF would be for the Tampa Bay region what Stanford (University) has been to Silicon Valley," he said.

Currall told the committee about his work with the California Legislature, including at least one meeting he attended with the governor. He expressed interest in interdisciplinary research that might help USF distinguish itself against competitors in the higher education world, and shared ideas about how the university could better track metrics related to student performance.

While Currall has been at Southern Methodist University since 2016, he has previous experience at larger institutions more similar to USF. He spent seven years serving in various capacities at the University of California-Davis, and held leadership positions abroad at University College London.

He ended his interview with a bold statement: "I want the job."

"It would be the remaining mission for my career," he added. "This is a last job for me."

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

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