USF expects to hire a new president by January

But first a search committee must decide what qualities they want to see in the university’s next leader.
Students walk through the Tampa campus of the University of South Florida, where leaders are embarking on a national search for a new president. The process is expected to be complete by January.
Students walk through the Tampa campus of the University of South Florida, where leaders are embarking on a national search for a new president. The process is expected to be complete by January. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Sept. 15, 2021|Updated Sept. 15, 2021

The 15-member committee leading the search for the University of South Florida’s next president announced Wednesday that it will make a selection by January.

Committee chairperson Mike Griffin said he expected the new leader to continue USF’s ascent in the higher education world, with goals that include becoming a Top 25 public university and gaining entry into the Association of American Universities, an invitation-only group of top research schools.

But the search could be challenging, said Alberto Pimentel, who leads SP&A Executive Search, the firm tapped to work with the committee. He told the panel that finding the right “fit” for the position was important — a factor that some members suggested had not been the case with former president Steve Currall, who left abruptly in July.

The nature of the job has changed over the last few years, Pimentel said. More presidents are stepping down or being “encouraged” to step down by boards of trustees, he said. Pressure from state legislatures, a constant push to find new revenue, and activist groups targeting presidents on social media have made the job less desirable, he said.

About a dozen presidential searches around the country could directly compete with USF, Pimentel said. The biggest challenge, he said, will be Florida’s open search laws — a common complaint from search consultants and one that many open records advocates dispute.

While the list of candidates is considered public information, Pimentel said, “targets” and “prospects” are not — those contacted by the search firm or by individuals on the search committee but whose names are not shared with other members.

The targets, he said, will include the sitting presidents and provosts at all 130 U.S. universities that engage in top-level research, known as “Research I” universities. That group includes the 66 members of the American Association of Universities. Deans and research vice presidents will also be sought.

Pimentel said he is already in conversation with a dozen prospects.

He said it was important for committee members to consider that most presidents at competitive research schools serve five to seven years. But it was also important that the committee articulate what they are looking for and find a good fit.

“When we see something has not worked out well for a particular president, it’s usually not because they are incompetent,” Pimentel said. “Most times it’s because there wasn’t really a strong connection of the values of the institution and the values the individual brought to the table.”

He asked them to consider if they would be willing to take on a “direct” communicator who might “upset the apple cart,” or if a candidate’s focus was more internal versus external. He asked if they wanted someone who was comfortable in all settings, formal and informal.

He also said it was important to let him know if they wanted a candidate who was not “too academic” and didn’t make people feel like “you’re attending a lecture.”

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If the presidents of the nation’s top research universities were gathered in a room, Pimentel said, “there would be a small group that would be really dynamic and inspiring, but the vast majority would be very intellectual. And you have to decide what works for what you need.”

Dr. Patrick Hwu, a member of the committee and president and CEO of Moffitt Cancer Center, asked if they should consider broadening their search given how competitive the field appeared to be.

Committee member Jose Valiente, who is chair of USF Foundation Board of Directors, alluded to Currall and suggested too much emphasis was being placed on academics.

“I think sometimes we get hung up on academia. That’s fine, it’s very important,’ Valiente said. “But that person is not going to be teaching a class. That person is going to be running a multi-billion dollar operation with thousands of employees under that person.”

In an interview, Griffin said he didn’t think candidates from outside Florida were at a disadvantage and pointed to other successful university presidents who have come from out-of-state.

Over the next few weeks, Griffin and Pimentel will embark on “listening sessions” and distribute an online survey asking for the public’s thoughts on a new USF president. They hope to start interviewing candidates by November and bring the process to a close before January’s state Board of Governors meeting, where the candidate will be confirmed.

But Pimentel added that if university leaders don’t find a candidate they like, the search can continue.

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