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Longtime USF provost Ralph Wilcox to step down

The announcement comes as the university also searches for a new president.
University of South Florida provost Ralph Wilcox will leave his post early next year and join the faculty.
University of South Florida provost Ralph Wilcox will leave his post early next year and join the faculty. [ Times (2016) ]
Published Nov. 8, 2021|Updated Nov. 9, 2021

Ralph Wilcox, the longtime provost and executive vice president at the University of South Florida, announced Monday he will step down and return to a faculty position next year.

“While the university has, in so many ways, become an extended family for me over the years I regret to say I have repeatedly failed the work-life balance test,” he wrote in a letter to the USF community.

Wilcox cited a desire to spend more time with his family. In an interview, he said he believed the timing was in the best interest of the university, too.

The provost serves as the university’s chief academic officer. Wilcox, who has held the post since 2008 under two presidents and interim president Rhea Law, agreed to stay on and “assist in the transition for as long as is needed,” Law announced in an email to the university community. He is the longest-serving provost in the State University System.

His announcement Monday comes about four months after USF’s seventh president, Steve Currall, citing similar reasons, announced he was stepping down to a faculty position. A search is under way for Currall’s replacement, and the university will begin looking for a new provost in the spring.

Wilcox is largely credited with the rise of the university’s academic profile, often lauded at state Board of Governors meetings for his focus on USF’s metrics.

Law praised his “tireless contributions to the University of South Florida’s rise in stature among the nation’s top public universities.”

Brian Lamb, a USF alumnus and former chairperson of the school’s board of trustees, said in a statement that Wilcox leaves an “enormous impact on the USF community, Tampa Bay region and State University System as a whole.”

Along the way, though, Wilcox at times has butted heads with faculty.

He was at the center of a controversial plan last year to phase out undergraduate programs in USF’s College of Education. The plan drew immediate and harsh criticism, with many, including faculty and local school superintendents, saying they were not consulted or given advance notice.

Faculty Senate president Tim Boaz said he was not surprised to hear the news.

“The last couple years really have been a pressure cooker here,” he said. “You can only go at that pace for so long, I think.”

Boaz said while he had a good working relationship with Wilcox and enjoyed working with him, the provost’s relationship with faculty was at times contentious, though in line what is typical at many universities.

“We didn’t always agree. I think faculty broadly across the university have had long-brewing issues we haven’t seen eye-to-eye on,” said Boaz, who nevertheless appreciated that Wilcox consulted faculty on some issues and saw things through their perspective.

One of those issues, he said, was a recent proposal that would curb tenure protections for faculty.

Wilcox said he has a strong belief in shared governance. While he and faculty have not always agreed, he said their voices should be involved in determining the future of the university.

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The provost and president are among several top positions that are open or have recently been filled at USF — from the board of trustees chairperson, a spot recently filled by former House Speaker Will Weatherford, to a new regional chancellor at USF St. Petersburg and a new vice president for research. Searches are underway for the latter two jobs.

The high-level turnover comes at a time when university administrators in Florida are facing growing questions about the role of politics in higher education, with legislation that seeks to measure campus discourse and concerns surfacing over academic independence, particularly at the University of Florida.

Wilcox said the provost plays an important role as an advocate for free speech and academic principles, which he hopes to champion for the rest of his term.

He joined the university nearly 20 years ago and previously served as vice provost and campus executive officer at USF St. Petersburg. Among his accomplishments, according to a USF news release, are improvements in the six-year graduation rate, the freshman retention rate and the diversity of the student body; strengthening the academic profile of incoming students; and closing the achievement gap by race, ethnicity and income level.

Also while he was provost, the university steadily rose in the U.S. News & World Report rankings and was designated a Florida preeminent research university.

Paul Dosal, vice provost for student success, said the numbers are no accident.

“It was deliberate. It was planned. It was dreamed for,” Dosal said. “We worked hard for it. Provost Wilcox is the architect of all that.”

Dosal, who sought out Wilcox as a mentor 15 years ago when he joined the university, said the push for student success was personal for both men. They shared a background as first-generation students from limited-income families.

“He believes firmly in equity, and that all students, when given the same opportunity, will achieve at the same rate,” Dosal said.

Wilcox said he looks forward to completing his career the way he started it, as a professor, but is not ready to wax nostalgic. He said he expects to continue for nine to 12 months, working to ensure the “next provost can take the university and lift the community to even greater heights.”

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