USF, big on ambition, hits a bump as its still-new president steps down

What will the transition mean for America’s “fastest-rising university?” The search to replace Steve Currall begins soon.
USF president Steve Currall speaks at a June 23 Board of Governors meeting in St. Petersburg, where a board member questioned whether the school was being aggressive enough about its goals.
USF president Steve Currall speaks at a June 23 Board of Governors meeting in St. Petersburg, where a board member questioned whether the school was being aggressive enough about its goals. [ The Florida Channel ]
Published July 24, 2021|Updated July 24, 2021

Brian Lamb of the state Board of Governors appeared frustrated at a meeting last month in St. Petersburg.

As a University of South Florida graduate and a former chairperson of its board of trustees, he publicly suggested that his old school wasn’t trying hard enough. He pointed out that the university had lowered its goals in six of 10 categories, part of an annual exercise to receive state funding based on performance.

As vice chair of the board, Lamb helps oversee Florida’s State University System.

“What’s changed so dramatically that we’d need to reduce that many goals?” he asked USF president Steve Currall, making for an awkward moment in the spotlight. Other Florida universities had set theirs higher, he noted.

Currall and provost Ralph Wilcox tried to assure Lamb that USF was aiming high but they said its goals needed to be realistic, especially in light of the pandemic. Lamb, a banking executive, was not comforted.

”I would just ask, Mr. president, if you could take one more look at this. ... I just want to make sure we don’t go backwards,” he said.

A few weeks later, in a development that stunned the USF community, Currall announced he would step down from the presidency just two years into his tenure. He said the pressures of the job had placed too much stress on his health and family. He plans to take a months-long break, then has the option to re-enter academia as a tenured professor.

Related: RELATED: USF president Steve Currall to step down two years into his tenure

It will be a hasty exit as transitions at his level more typically take months to complete, giving the leader and the institution time to get their bearings.

But as USF prepares to undertake a national search for a new president, the outgoing one did not paint a reassuring picture for potential applicants.

Currall, a 62-year-old who thrives on exercise and played quarterback in high school, called the pace of the USF presidency extreme and unsustainable. He planned to leave, he said, “before I have a heart attack, rather than after.”

The arduous process of consolidating USF’s three campuses remains an issue. A restive faculty is questioning budget decisions at every turn. Currall embarked on a long list of changes to address equity concerns in the wake of last summer’s national reckoning over race. And USF remains focused on a push it started years ago to raise its national profile — all of it on top of the pressure to raise money and a pandemic that has altered university operations.

Was there more at play in Currall’s departure? And where does USF go from here?

Steve Currall, then three months into his job as USF president, spoke with members of student government on Oct. 1, 2019, at the university's St. Petersburg campus. [Times (2019)]
Steve Currall, then three months into his job as USF president, spoke with members of student government on Oct. 1, 2019, at the university's St. Petersburg campus. [Times (2019)]
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Currall’s tense exchange with Lamb might have provided some clues. It made clear that, while Currall has earned high praise for his work ethic, his leadership during the pandemic and other accomplishments — enough to earn a performance bonus — not everyone saw promise in the direction he set for USF.

The university “has high aspirations and has the courage to pursue those,” Currall said in an interview the day of his announcement. “I’ve tried to fuel that and reinforce that and help people try to come to grips with what does that mean. And how do we get there as well.”

The terms of Currall’s separation agreement still need to be approved by the board of trustees. But they suggest an urgency on the university’s side for the two to part ways, giving Currall what appears to be more compensation than what was called for in his original contract.

The original, signed in 2019, stated that if Currall were to “voluntarily resign” within five years or be fired “with cause,” he would forfeit all deferred compensation, which totals 20 percent of his base salary, or $115,000 a year. The money is to be provided by the USF Foundation.

But the agreement Currall signed Monday, which supersedes the original, says he is entitled to the deferred amount for the time he has already served, even though it appears he is resigning voluntarily.

In addition, he will receive the unpaid portion of a performance stipend approved last year by the board of trustees — on top of his base salary of $575,000. Only $200,000 will come from state funds, due to a Florida law that took effect this year. The remainder will come from the foundation.

The payments are in effect for the next 15 months while Currall is on a professional development leave.

Many key figures in USF and government circles were not talking about the circumstances of Currall’s departure or where it puts the university.

Former board of trustees chairman Jordan Zimmerman hung up the phone. Les Muma, a large USF benefactor and a trustee who pushed for Currall’s selection, deferred to the school’s communications team, as did two deans. Lamb from the Board of Governors did not respond to a request for comment, nor did USF trustee Melissa Seixas or Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls.

Several others reached declined to comment on the record.

To some who agreed to speak, it appeared that Currall struggled in the shadow of his predecessor, Judy Genshaft, and they drew comparisons of the two.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, referenced Genshaft, saying he hoped the next USF president will have a “bolder vision” and be more engaged with the community.

“That’s something that I think was a major asset of Judy Genshaft; she was always out there doing more and more and more,” he said. “That, to me, is the role of the president: not so much the day-to-day operations of the university, but to carry the vision forward and attract top talent.”

Joel Momberg, former CEO of the USF Foundation, who was behind a $1 billion fundraising campaign, said he too believed the next president should have those qualities. Genshaft’s persona, he said, was important in cultivating relationships in the community and the school’s fundraising efforts.

“Her big personality, her great generosity, my gosh, and her ability to create the story and pull together all the right people to do all the right things — it’s going to be hard to duplicate Judy in the next iteration,” Momberg said. “But someone who has those same qualities, someone who’s as beloved in the community, is going to be tough because that takes time, obviously.”

Candidates from outside the state, he said, have an advantage in being able to bring a different way of thinking. The potential disadvantage is navigating state politics.

But the university is “very dynamic,” Momberg said, and as much as a leader is important, it is ultimately the sum of its parts.

“It’s not a staid, old university with ivy-covered walls where you join staff and you’re one of many that just kind of does your job,” he said. “We’ve had bumps in the road and there are things that happen that you just go, ‘Oh my gosh, how do you get through this?’ … But the fact is we did.”

USF “has high aspirations and has the courage to pursue those,” Currall said in an interview. “I’ve tried to fuel that and reinforce that and help people try to come to grips with what does that mean." [Times (2019)]
USF “has high aspirations and has the courage to pursue those,” Currall said in an interview. “I’ve tried to fuel that and reinforce that and help people try to come to grips with what does that mean." [Times (2019)]

Genshaft responded to an interview request with a statement extolling the university and expressing her pride in its accomplishments. “And I know the future remains very bright,” the statement said. It did not mention Currall.

Former Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn called the transition “a hiccup.” In addition to a strong academic footing, he said, the next USF president should have the ability to communicate a vision for growth while navigating the challenges needed to attract funding to a growing school.

They also should be adept at navigating state politics.

“Florida is a complicated place,” he said. “There are a lot of undercurrents here and political intrigue that exists in other states but is probably magnified here in Florida, given the size and the fact that we’ve had one-party control for so long. ... So it helps if you are adept at dealing with that. It helps if you have people around you who can help you navigate those landmines.”

Former USF president Betty Castor said the university’s ascent has been something close to miraculous.

In its 60-year history, it has broken through the U.S. News and World Report rankings to become one of the top 50 public universities in the country. It’s also among the top 25 for research spending and was named in 2020 by U.S. News as the “fastest-rising university in America.”

The school now aims to become a top 25 public university and is working to earn entrance into the Association of American Universities, a league of elite research schools.

Those ambitions have attracted the ire of faculty, students and others who have felt pressures to do more with less.

“We’ve been able to move ahead with state funding that has really not kept pace with not only the aspirations but the reality,” Castor said. “Legislators are respectful and they understand, but it’s not reflected in the reality of the budget.”

Echoing what Currall said this week, Castor called the president’s job a “pressure cooker,” with demands from the Legislature, trustees and the campus community.

That dynamic came into full view last fall, when Currall’s administration announced that USF planned to phase out undergraduate programs in the College of Education. The news drew strong criticism from faculty and local school superintendents who hire scores of USF-trained educators every year.

Related: RELATED: USF will close its College of Education due to budget cuts

Many were upset that the move came as a surprise, questioning why top decision-makers had not been more collaborative. The discontent poured out at a board of trustees committee meeting last December, putting Currall on the spot.

But at the same meeting, Stephanie Goforth, then a trustee, praised Currall for his leadership through the pandemic.

During the president’s first year, no specific goals were set, she said, and the trustees expected Currall would mostly focus on “building relations” locally and in Tallahassee.

“At that particular point, we thought that was all we had to worry about,” Goforth said. “Then the pandemic hit.”

She ran through USF’s accomplishments under Currall: The school ranked first last year in the number of state performance metrics met. It also raised $120 million, admitted its most academically accomplished freshman class, broke records for patents and more.

In an interview Saturday, Goforth, whose time as a trustee ended recently, praised Currall for prioritizing his health and family and being able to step away. She said the university’s senior leaders can tide the school through the transition.

Currall also earned high praise from those leading the equity initiatives that the president launched after last summer’s protests over the murder of George Floyd.

Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman was a faculty member at the time who had penned a letter on behalf of 88 Black faculty and staff members, calling on the university to do better. Currall later elevated her to a vice president’s role, helping to oversee equity efforts.

Related: RELATED: USF hears from black faculty, staff: Do more to end systemic racism

Hordge-Freeman called Currall’s presidency “pioneering,” saying he made more strides toward inclusion in one year than she had seen in several.

His legacy, she said, will be memorialized in the university’s 10-year-strategic plan, adopted last month, which places social justice and human rights among the university’s seven strategic initiatives. Diversity, equity and inclusion are among its core commitments.

“It is absolutely essential that the next leader not only values diversity, equity and inclusion but is committed to moving forward in a collaborative way,” Hordge-Freeman said.

Will Weatherford, the former House Speaker who serves as chairperson of USF’s board of trustees, argued in an op-ed published Friday in the Tampa Bay Times that the unexpected change of presidents will not alter the school’s trajectory.

Related: RELATED: Opinion: We need your help to search for the next USF president

Others share that view.

Board of Governors member Alan Levine, who served with Currall on Moffitt Cancer Center’s board of directors, said he had grown fond of the president. He credited him with building bridges between the center, Tampa General Hospital and the university.

He said the Board of Governors will continue to push the university toward aggressive milestones, much as Lamb did recently in that tense public exchange.

“If you’re betting on a horse,” Levine said, “I would bet on USF any day of the week.”