TAMPA — Rhea Law was the first one in the building when she entered her new office around 7 a.m. Wednesday.
It wasn’t her first day at the University of South Florida, but it was her first day on campus as interim president. And in some ways, she said, it felt like coming home.
Law — a fifth-generation Floridian, USF alumna and one-time chairperson of its board of trustees — was confirmed as interim president Monday, two weeks after the university’s seventh president, Steve Currall, made the surprise announcement he was stepping down.
As a former CEO of the Fowler White Boggs law firm, which merged with the national firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney in 2014, the 71-year-old Law has chaired and served on numerous boards across Tampa Bay. But her roots come back to USF, she said.
“I care deeply about the University of South Florida,” she told a group of provosts, deans and department chairs in a virtual meeting Wednesday morning. “It has changed my life and given me a confidence I wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
Law initially began working at the university in 1968 under its first president, John Stuart Allen, and soon moved to the office of sponsored research. The job required her to meet with professors and discuss their fields of research across all types of disciplines, and soon she became enchanted with university life.
It was mind-expanding, she said, a place where conversations have a different texture. She continued working while she began her undergraduate degree in management, and left when she entered Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport.
On Wednesday as she made rounds in the Patel Center near the center of campus, she was greeted by USF interim vice president and chief operating officer Nick Setteducato.
“Welcome home,” he said.
“We’re here to support you,” senior vice provost Dwayne Smith said. “We’ve got your back. Welcome aboard.”
Travis Miller, associate director of commencement, stopped by with a representative from Oak Hall, a family-owned regalia company, to take Law’s measurements for an upcoming commencement ceremony.
Though Law began making calls as soon as she was nominated by board of trustees chairperson Will Weatherford, her first day was filled with introductions and she plans to keep meeting people.
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She said she wants them to know she’s listening — not looking to steer them in a new direction but support them until a new president is selected. She wants them to know she’s not a “command and control person.”
At a lunch meeting where she met members of the president’s team, Paige Beles Geers, the deputy chief of staff, introduced her to the group.
“We’re excited to have a new fearless leader in the president’s office,” she said.
“I don’t know about fearless,” Law said, smiling.
But as the first female lawyer to be hired to her firm — and someone who has flown an F-16 plane, gone skydiving as a trustee of the university with ROTC, and raced cars — her record speaks differently.
When Law met her husband, Wayne Williams, she was racing motorcycles and he was racing cars, she said. His first gift to her was to go to racing school, where she got her license. They met over CB radios while driving on the Howard Frankland Bridge, later meeting for breakfast.
Thirty-six years later, they’re still attending car shows.
There’s much to be learned from racing, the interim president said.
“When you are racing, you have to put your entire focus on those mechanical steps of hitting your apex points and figuring out how you’re going to approach a corner if trying to overtake someone,” she said. “It takes all of your thought process. You need to be thinking about what you’re doing, otherwise you’re going to be off track.”
She continued, “If you think about it, that’s kind of life. When you’re dealing with problems or issues, you have to put all your focus into it.”
During one meeting Wednesday, USF provost Ralph Wilcox introduced Law as someone who “relishes living on the edge” and is interested in anything fast. So it seems right that the institution she now leads was dubbed last year by U.S. News & World Report as “America’s fastest rising university.”
But it is not without its issues.
The pandemic, which forced the university to quickly modify its operations in 2020, has hit its fourth wave with cases surging. Law said reopening plans for 2021-22 remain in place, but that the university is monitoring the situation closely.
In a virtual meeting, she thanked Donna Petersen, who led a COVID-19 taskforce, for work she had done in keeping the school safe — and for the work she is about to do.
The pandemic is not over, Law said, emphasizing that safety precautions will be important. When she met with student government leaders on the Tampa campus Wednesday, they asked her about her thoughts on the role they play.
She told them that spreading school spirit was important, excited they had USF Bulls logos on the gear they planned to hand out during the first week of school. So is spreading information about vaccines and masks, said Law, who recorded a video encouraging people to wear masks.
But that wouldn’t really do it, she told them. “They need to hear it from their peers,” she said.
The students asked her if she would be open to meeting with them regularly. Students, she said, were the heart of the university.
“I’ll meet as often as you feel is helpful,” she said. “That’s my job. ... You never know what someone else is until you walk in their shoes, and it’s been a long time since I walked in a student’s shoes.”
Faculty members, too, appeared to extend an olive branch following year in which they have sparred with administration over budget and communication issues.
Alex Levine, chair of the philosophy department, invited Law to attend faculty senate meetings and informal barbecues — when they were safe again.
“We don’t bite,” he said. Law said she’d be delighted.
Other issues await her attention until the next president is selected.
Law said she hopes to continue with the implementation of the diversity and inclusion initiatives started under Currall after the racial reckoning of 2020. And as an environmental and land use lawyer, she said the controversy over the possible development of the USF Forest Preserve adjacent to the Tampa campus was one she was following closely.
She said she hopes to create a “smooth glide path” for the next president to land on.
As someone who’s served on the past two presidential search committees at USF, she said she hopes the school’s next leader is someone who has a strong academic backing and respects faculty, staff and students. She said she hopes it’s someone who wants to see the university continue to climb as an integral part of the Tampa Bay economy.
“We sink or swim together, and I’d prefer swim,” Law said. “In fact I’d rather have one of those water jet things. I don’t want us to stay static where we are today. I want us to move forward and upward.”