University of South Florida president Steve Currall announced to the USF community Monday he would step down effective Aug. 2.
“For the entire USF community, the past two years have been a challenging and intense journey,” Currall said in a message to faculty, staff, students and alumni. “In the face of challenges, you have shown tremendous resiliency and the power of our community. As a result, we have achieved many significant milestones. The intensity of the past two years has put a strain on my health and my family. Therefore, after thoughtful reflection, I have decided to retire from the USF presidency to ensure that I preserve my health, as well as to spend more time with my wife, Cheyenne, and my 91-year-old father.”
Currall, who joined the university in July 2019, plans to take a professional development leave, after which he has the option to return as a tenured full professor and continue his research in organizational psychology. The board of trustees will consider granting him President Emeritus status.
Ralph Wilcox, the USF provost, will serve as acting president before the board of trustees meets to vote on an interim president. University officials said Wilcox was unavailable for comment, and other top USF leaders declined to be interviewed, referring questions to the university’s communications office.
Currall, 62, has had a busy two years as USF’s leader. Among his first tasks was to complete the work of consolidating USF’s three separately accredited campuses into one university, as mandated by the Florida Legislature. Then came the pandemic and last summer’s racial reckoning after the death of George Floyd, the latter development sparking a number of equity initiatives at the university.
More recently, Currall’s administration faced backlash last fall after announcing it planned to phase out undergraduate programs in the College of Education. The move stunned many faculty, university leaders and local school superintendents who rely on USF-trained graduates to fill teaching ranks.
The plan, which came about because of budget issues, was later dropped. But Currall’s administration continued to be the target of criticism from faculty and others over its budget-cutting decisions and a perception that some major decisions were made without consulting others.
Tensions swelled anew this year after the university’s finance office reached out to developers for ideas on what the university might build on the USF Forest Preserve adjacent to the Tampa campus. Faculty and students who used the preserve for research and outdoor classes were not consulted.
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Tim Boaz, president of the USF Faculty Senate and a board of trustees member, said members of the Senate had considered taking a vote of no-confidence in the president last fall when tensions were highest. But they decided not to follow through, he said, because of Currall’s willingness to work with them, meeting weekly.
Boaz said he enjoyed working with Currall and was surprised by Monday’s announcement, having spoken to him on Friday. He said Currall had more informal interactions with faculty than his predecessor, Judy Genshaft, and was receptive to working with faculty.
“He was definitely open to receiving input from us,” Boaz said, “He reached out to me, more than I would have expected for a university president to seek out faculty input. I really appreciated his willingness to do that. ... He really invested a lot of time and energy in process.”
Boaz said he worries about what a new president may mean for some of the headway made with Currall.
“I’m disappointed that’s going to probably be disrupted somewhat, but (that’s) something I certainly plan to continue to pursue with the administration as it evolves over the next year,” he said. “I’m disappointed he won’t be a part of that.”
Martin Tadlock, regional chancellor of the St. Petersburg campus, said he had a good working relationship with the president since his arrival.
“This is a board of trustees decision,” he said. “The president works for and reports to the board of trustees. My concern on this campus is that we continue to make the progress we’ve been making and move forward.”
Tampa area lawmakers with strong ties to the USF system did not want to speculate on whether Currall was encouraged to leave the school.
However, they did note that he did not have the large personality that Genshaft brought to the post, and that his approach wasn’t popular with everyone.
”It’s a big job, and not purely academic,” said state Sen. Janet Cruz, a Tampa Democrat whose district includes the university’s main campus.
State Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Pinellas County Republican who has long advocated for the St. Petersburg campus, said he did not see in Currall the type of leadership that the university deserved, given the resources and attention the state has poured into it.
”I think it’s a positive step for the university,” he said of Currall’s departure. “It will help attract better talent, more resources, and help the university move forward.”
Brandes and House Speaker Chris Sprowls, who both played active roles in higher education legislation this year, were critical of the university’s approach to consolidation. The two pressured senior USF administrators to develop a plan to quickly boost sagging enrollment at the St. Petersburg campus.
Cruz said she liked Currall, and called him “really bright.” She noted that he led the school through two difficult years, and she credited him for keeping USF advancing.
”I know that we’re doing well,” she said. “But we want to do even better.”
Both lawmakers anticipated a national search to find a “champion” for USF.
In an interview Monday, Currall said he did not feel pushed out.
He said the timing of his departure seemed logical to him as the budget for next year was in place and a strategic plan was passed. The university has three open searches for leadership positions currently underway and he said he thought it would not be ethical to have a major transition soon after those hires are made.
Currall previously was provost and vice president at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. For the USF job, he emerged as one of four finalists culled from more than 30 applicants during a nationwide presidential search that began in late 2018.
On the day he was hired, he made sure the USF presidential search committee knew his intentions. He said it would be his “great life mission“ to lead USF. “I want the job,” he told them.
Currall’s original contract was for five years with an optional one-year extension. Whenever his term ended, he would be eligible for a 12-month professional development leave before transitioning to a faculty position.
His base salary was $575,000 and he took a 15 percent pay cut last October in light of university-wide budget cuts. The board of trustees approved him for an annual performance bonus last year, which he also deferred in light of budget cuts.
He and his wife, Cheyenne Currall, live at the on-campus Lifsey House, which underwent $1.2 million in renovations after they moved in. An end-of-contract agreement signed Monday said they would move from the Lifsey House at their own expense within a reasonable time and that Currall would begin a 15-month professional development leave at his current salary and the option to return to a faculty position.
He said will take the time off to retool and get back into the literature.
“That’s really what I was from the beginning. I was a professor,” he said. “I got into this career because I was interested in research and teaching, primarily research. Those are my roots so it’s not hard to go back to that.”
He said his firsthand experience with crisis management will likely factor into what he teaches, and he looks forward to returning a more sustainable pace of life to prioritize health.
“It’s not sustainable,” he said of his time as president. “It’s difficult to get adequate rest and vacations and exercise. Exercise is huge. I’ve kind of had this voice in the back of my mind saying, ‘You can’t keep doing this and expect there’s not going to be some kind of implications or consequences.”
All university president jobs are difficult, he said, but the last two years at USF have been particularly challenging.
“It’s been a lot,” he said. “I’m trying to take action before I have a heart attack, rather than after. That’s the hope.”
Among things he’s most proud of in his term, he said, is further developing USF’s sense of community, developing the university’s first “Principles of Community” and working on diversity, inclusion and equal opportunity initiatives.
He said USF’s consolidation was a challenging task, but was pleased with the results and said that the latest site visit from the accrediting body came back with a report with no recommendations, which he said is “as good as it gets.”
“It really is a special community,” Currall said. “I think what’s fascinating about USF is that it’s a courageous university. It has high aspirations and has the courage to pursue those. ... I’ve tried to fuel that and reinforce that and help people try to come to grips with what does that mean.”
Currall, a Kansas City native, is USF’s seventh president, having succeeded Genshaft, who held the post for two decades.
Will Weatherford, the former speaker of the Florida House who was elected as USF’s board of trustees chairman last month, responded to an interview request with a statement that added to an earlier message he sent to the university community.
“USF is on an incredible trajectory and we are grateful for Steve’s contributions,” the statement said. “We have a solid foundation to build upon as we launch the search for our next president. We will announce those details soon. I have no doubt we will have many enthusiastic candidates from around the country who will be eager to play a role in the next chapter of USF’s compelling story.”
His earlier message cited accomplishments including Currall overseeing more than $230 million in philanthropy and said he knew the decision to step down was not made lightly.
Weatherford said he was glad the president and his wife would remain part of USF.
“I would like to thank President Currall for his steadfast leadership and dedication through what has been one of the most challenging periods in our history,” the statement said. “Though we have only worked together for a short period of time, I have been impressed by his tireless work ethic and passion for the transformative role of higher education.”
Boaz, the Faculty Senate president, said he believes it will be important for an incoming president to be able to lobby with state government and fundraise among philanthropists.
“It’s the case that this university has had to do more with less for awhile,” he said. “Given our aspirations, we don’t have the financial resources to really effectively pursue them.”
But, he said, he also hopes it’s someone with a track record of academic experience and university leadership. Earlier this year, Florida State University came under scrutiny from a major regional accrediting organization for nominating education commissioner Richard Corcoran as a candidate, touted for his connections in the Legislature.
Currall’s decision will have implications for the business community, which relies heavily on the university for its work force.
Craig Richard, chief executive officer of the Tampa Bay Economic Development Council, praised Currall for keeping USF a driving force in providing talent and innovation for the region.
“He has been tremendously supportive of our efforts to recruit new companies to Tampa by meeting with prospects and is working with us on initiatives to retain USF graduates in our market,” Richard said via email. “We are thankful to him for all he has done for the EDC and our community and wish him well in his next chapter.”
Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.