TAMPA — On a late July afternoon, University of South Florida president Steve Currall and his wife, Cheyenne, were spotted by a student holding a drone at MLK Plaza, the center of campus.
“Hi Mr. President,” Mahmoud Bennett called out.
Steve Currall said hello and asked how he was doing. They chatted about the drone.
“I knew it was you!” said Bennett, who planned to graduate in a month. He was out with his brother shooting photos and footage.
This, of course, was the whole idea when Currall took over USF’s top job just over a year ago and decided to live in Lifsey House, a rarely used on-campus residence built for the university president. He and his wife wanted to meet people.
Designed in the late 1980s, the home had not been lived in for two decades as Currall’s predecessor, Judy Genshaft, opted to live off campus.
“Can I get a picture with you?” Bennett asked. “I promise, I have no symptoms or anything.”
The president grinned. “Sure.”
Bennett quickly set down his drone and slipped on his graduation cap. His brother readied the camera.
“This is my wife,” Currall said, pointing to Cheyenne. “Do you want one with her, too?”
He told the student to stand in the middle.
“I can be like your son,” Bennett said as they all faced the camera.
“Yeah,” the president said. “You’re family now.”
A dozen months and a pandemic after they arrived in Tampa, the Curralls are among the few people still roaming USF’s main campus, leaving mainly for groceries and take-out.
“It’s been a little bit of an atypical first year for a president,” said Currall, 61, who came from Southern Methodist University, where he served as provost.
Longtime USF provost Ralph Wilcox said it’s been one of the most stressful times of his career in higher education. He’s been at USF since 2002.
In Currall, he has seen a composed and steady leader, guiding the university through what he called “the three Cs”: consolidation, COVID-19 and community unrest.
“Even one of those things would be enough for a seasoned president,” Wilcox said.
This summer, a fourth crisis landed on the president’s desk — allegations on Twitter that multiple women had experienced sexual violence in recent years while at USF, and that the university had not done enough to help the victims.
Currall said he was “deeply troubled” by the revelations and ordered a review of the university’s procedures.
His presidency started with the task of completing consolidation, which took effect July 1, his one-year anniversary. The Legislature had mandated the change a year before Currall arrived. Completing it required stepping into the middle of long-standing tensions between USF’s locations in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota.
All were separately accredited universities. Currall’s mission: Finish the job of sewing them together into a single university, with new lines of authority — while tending to the inevitable hard feelings.
“It was on a good path,” Currall said. “The university community had really done amazing, heroic, Herculean things to get on that path. But there was still a lot of work to do. In fact, I’d probably say the hardest work was last year, after I arrived.”
With his doctorate in organizational behavior, the new president looked at it like a puzzle — a complex one.
“Certainly, the context was new, but the topics were not new and the dynamics and considerations were not new,” he said. “I think that helped me a lot just to have an orientation toward the problems to solve.”
He corrected himself: “Problems is not quite the right word. It’s really more just aligning the pieces.”
He said he recognizes the strength of USF’s smaller campuses, recalling the 12 years he worked as a professor and director at Rice University, which had less than 7,000 students.
Currall, who signs his university communications as “President and Professor,” has earned recognition as an academic’s academic among faculty, many of whom were skeptical of consolidation. He spent his first 100 days in office meeting with students and faculty across a USF landscape that enrolls about 51,000 students, with Tampa hosting about 87 percent of them.
Ray Arsenault, former president of the USF St. Petersburg faculty senate, had been a vocal critic of the plan to consolidate. Though he hasn’t met one-on-one with Currall, working with him was like “a breath of fresh air,” he said.
“From what I’ve seen, he’s very pleasant and an engaging personality,” Arsenault said. “I’ve got the sense he’s quite a consummate professional and a serious academic. In a world where so many university presidents are not true academics, I really appreciate that the search committee chose him.”
Currall, he said, knows when to step back and allow faculty to lead.
“If anyone can navigate these waters with skill and a humane vision, it may be him,” Arsenault said. “He seems willing to listen.”
Cheyenne Currall met her husband while they were graduate students at Cornell University.
Born in Xian, China, she had come to the United States to study comparative literature as a graduate student at Brown University. She transferred to Cornell, where like Steve Currall, she studied organizational psychology, and worked at the library where he would visit daily.
“I was wondering, this guy is cute and in the same department,” she said. “He never did ask me out, though. But he’d come back every day and find something different to talk about.”
After about two weeks, she said she asked him if he wanted to get lunch. “He said, ‘Oh, yes. Sure,’ and then the rest was history.”
The two were married in 1991 and have lived and worked in England, New York, Illinois, Texas and California. They have no children.
Cheyenne Currall, 62, has worked for more than 25 years in global business development and management consulting with private companies, health care systems and universities. She’s been an executive director, professor and foreign affairs officer. She’s also an international conflict resolution mediator, certified through Harvard Law and the Kennedy School of Government.
For most of the last year, her focus has been on supporting her husband behind the scenes and helping get settled into Lifsey House, she said.
The 9,000 square-foot residence, completed in 1993, had not been lived in for 20 years. The first floor is used for gatherings, the second floor for living quarters.
The university spent $1.2 million to renovate the home, with some of the money coming privately through the USF Foundation. Improvements have included a security system and fence, electric and plumbing repairs, a new roof and transformer, and changes to bring the building into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Currall forfeited the $420,000 granted to him as a housing allowance in the university’s hiring contract.
At first, people wondered if they were serious, Cheyenne Currall said. But living on campus was important to them, she said — a way to meet students and show they were part of the university community.
They also loved the home’s design, she said, adding that architecture was her husband’s first interest.
She said she enjoys taking daily walks on campus.
“Sometimes I say hi and I think they turn around and wonder ‘Who is this woman?’” she said with a laugh. “I like the students at USF. They’re slightly different than at other universities we’ve been at. They don’t have a sense of entitlement. They have a spirit that they’re going to change the world when they graduate, and they work hard.”
This year, she was involved with the Women in Leadership and Philanthropy program through the USF Foundation, but said she now hopes to find a new role. She plans to volunteer at USF, but doesn’t want to take a position to avoid any perception of nepotism, even though the university has a policy that allows for targeted hiring of spouses.
Before the pandemic hit, the Curralls enjoyed occasionally going out to the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City and watching movies at the CineBistro in Hyde Park, she said.
Since March, they’ve mostly stayed inside Lifsey House, though Steve Currall said their work routines haven’t changed much since they were doctoral students, anyway.
Cheyenne Currall said coming to USF has given her a newfound appreciation of her husband.
“Of course, I love him very much and respect him as always, but this past year impressed me even more,” she said. “His first year has taught me a lot about what kind of person my husband is.”
Steve Currall said some of his first lessons in leadership came from his early days as a student athlete. The Kansas City, Mo., native was an all-state track and field athlete and a quarterback at Center High School. His wife joked that it’s something he still talks about.
Good leaders know how to work with teams, Steve Currall says. They know how to give all the glory and take all the blame.
These days, he worries that he doesn’t make enough time for exercise. He considers himself disciplined, and as a former student athlete, it bugs him. But being involved in operating a university amid a pandemic is time-consuming.
Currall recalled first hearing that the coronavirus was spreading in China and realizing it would soon be taking up much of his time.
“I’m not a physician. But I understand data, and I started to see data coming in from China,” he said. “I respected it very quickly.”
Currall said he consulted Donna Petersen, dean of the College of Public Health, and Dr. Charles Lockwood, the medical school dean. By March 2, they convened a task force that created a nearly 70-page reopening strategy to restart the fall semester in some capacity by August.
Those early days were filled with meetings that stretched for hours at a time, but Currall said he enjoys long meetings. Everyone who has something to say gets heard, he said, and it allows for “rigorous and vigorous conversations.”
That kind of listening is something he hopes will help as painful conversations about race take place across the country, and at USF.
After the president issued an initial statement following the death of George Floyd, many Black faculty and staff members were critical. They said the president’s words, which called for the community to reflect and listen, didn’t go far enough in addressing issues of systemic racism at USF.
Since then, Currall has said he’s committed to actions, not just words, but he wanted to be deliberate. He issued a second statement calling for specific reviews, improving the diversity of vendors who do business with USF and working with a steering committee to address other issues.
In October, he created a task force to develop a set of principles to bind USF, he said. The principles include “excellence with equity, diversity with inclusion, freedom with responsibility, dialogue with respect and transparency with accountability.”
Some have lauded him as a bridge builder.
At the Board of Governors’ June meeting, chairman Syd Kitson praised Currall for completing USF’s consolidation.
Another board member, Alan Levine, called attention to the alliance announced in March when the Tampa General Medical Group and USF Health physician group said they would join forces.
Levine also mentioned Currall’s efforts to strengthen the university’s ties with Moffitt Cancer Center.
Much of Currall’s work has been behind the scenes. He said he has visited Tallahassee nine times over the last year and built what he calls a close working relationship with legislators like Rep. Chris Sprowls, a USF graduate set to be Florida’s next House Speaker.
Also on Currall’s watch, USF has raised more than $120 million through its foundation, exceeding its $100 million goal and the $111 million it raised last year.
And earlier this year, the university announced a $1 million partnership with Jabil to establish the USF Jabil Innovation Institute and an $85 million, five-year contract with the U.S. Special Operations Command to create an institute that will assist the federal government in such fields as transportation, cybersecurity and data analytics.
Currall said he sees corporate partnerships as an “absolutely pivotal” part of securing USF’s financial future, second only to state funding. But that won’t compromise the university’s independence, he said.
“We’re never going to give that up,” he said. “If universities lose that impartiality, there’s really no other institution in society that can fill that function.”
His predecessor, Genshaft, became a well-known figure in Tampa Bay during her 19 years as president. Always quick to raise the USF Bulls hand sign, she cultivated a bond with students, who returned that affection with larger-than-life cutouts of her at sporting events.
Currall has been visible, too, participating in the Gasparilla parade, riding the Zamboni during a Lightning game, throwing out the first pitch at a Rays game, playing host to Vice President Mike Pence.
And walking the campus.
Mahmoud Bennett, the student who asked Currall for a photo, said he was “awe-struck” to see the university president in person. Currall “just seems very accessible,” he said.
With their photo taken, the student and the president exchanged pleasantries. Currall congratulated Bennett on his upcoming graduation, then the two did what people do in a pandemic.
They shared an elbow bump.
Times staff writer Megan Reeves contributed to this report.