Amid USF leadership worries, a key move in St. Pete pleases city leaders

USF St. Petersburg hopes to build bridges with the hiring of a community relations director.
A new position at USF St. Petersburg aims to create closer ties between the downtown campus, the city and local businesses.
A new position at USF St. Petersburg aims to create closer ties between the downtown campus, the city and local businesses. [ CHRIS URSO | Times (2019) ]
Published July 30, 2021

The University of South Florida has announced the creation of a new position that aims to strengthen ties between its St. Petersburg campus, the city and businesses in the area.

Caryn Nesmith, who served as a special assistant to the campus’s regional chancellor Martin Tadlock, was named director of community relations. The job, announced this week, will be funded by the campus, the city of St. Petersburg, the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership and the St. Petersburg Innovation District.

Caryn Nesmith
Caryn Nesmith [ University of South Florida ]

Those entities have a long-standing relationship with the campus, which has come under scrutiny in recent months. City leaders have questioned whether the status of USF St. Petersburg has been downgraded as the university completes a consolidation of its campuses mandated by the Legislature. Tadlock said the new position aims to solidify the university’s connections with the community and serve as a “campus concierge.”

Nesmith’s appointment comes at a time of uncertainty for USF leadership, both at the small but growing downtown campus and university-wide.

Tadlock, who was scheduled to retire this year, is considering staying on longer. At the same time, his boss, USF president Steve Currall, is stepping down on Aug. 2.

Related: RELATED: USF consolidation is hurting St. Petersburg campus, Pinellas leaders say

Currall’s office had scheduled “listening sessions” on the St. Petersburg campus for last week, where the president hoped to hear students and staff weigh in on the qualities they want to see in their next regional chancellor. Those sessions were suspended after Currall announced his surprise departure on July 19.

Tadlock said in an interview this week that he offered to continue working if needed and that he and Currall are considering it.

The USF board of trustees will meet Monday to vote on an interim president. Rhea Law, an attorney with long-standing connections to the university, has been recommended for the position by board chairperson and former House Speaker Will Weatherford.

Commenting on the school’s new St. Petersburg liaison, Jason Mathis, CEO of the Downtown Partnership, said he thinks strengthening existing ties can help boost the city into one similar to New York or Boston.

“You have students and faculty who are contributing not just to the economy of the downtown, but energy, ideas, entrepreneurship, workforce,” he said. “So that’s something our organization is really trying to understand for a long time: How can we capitalize on this existing asset that we have?”

St. Petersburg, he said, is invested in the future of the campus, which he believes has the capacity to grow within the USF system.

“I do feel people who live in St. Pete feel very strongly about this campus,” Mathis said. “We take great pride in this campus. We see it as our St. Pete university. Not to detract from St. Pete College or Eckerd College, but this campus that is so close geographically to the downtown of St. Pete has a very important role economically and emotionally in the business community. People in our community pay even more close attention to what happens on this campus and are intimately involved in this campus, I think far more so than other university campuses.”

Alison Barlow, executive director of the St. Petersburg Innovation District, said she too felt the business community has long rallied around the campus. They’ve previously partnered with the campus to pair first-year students with industry leaders.

“Our community cares about the USF St. Pete campus and students and wants them to be successful,” she said.

But she said the relationship with the school is mutual, and the presence of young people engaging with the downtown area makes it more vibrant.

“It really is a catalyst for bringing new ideas to the table,” she said.

Leah McRae, the city’s director of education, said she was excited about the possibilities for St. Petersburg after recent developments sparked worries that USF’s consolidation effort had changed its power structure. Deans at the colleges of education and business who had been engaged in the community left for other universities.

“Were we going to get sidelined? ... That piece of losing those folks, seeing that brain drain for lack of a better word, was concerning,” McRae said.

But the school’s relationship with the city remains intact, she said, and having Nesmith as a point person will allow for more collaboration.

Nesmith has previously worked on projects in conjunction with the community, including one that paired students with senior citizens to combat isolation and another to look at dismantling structural racism.

She said she’s looking forward to finding ways to connect the campus with other parts of the city.

“Every university should be of service to its surrounding community,” Nesmith said, “but given the strong sense of community we have here in St. Pete, the opportunities are endless.”