Rhea Law, the influential Tampa attorney who is serving as the University of South Florida’s interim president, has applied to take the job permanently.
Tasked with creating a “smooth glide path” for the next president, Law has been praised for working efficiently and building relationships since taking on the interim role in August after former president Steve Currall stepped down.
Her entry into the field could curtail the national search for USF’s eighth president. The presence of a strong internal candidate typically discourages candidates from going to the trouble of an intense, high-profile interviewing process.
Law, a USF alumna who once served on the university’s board of trustees, previously said she would not apply for the permanent position. But her application indicated she is eager to take on the role now.
“The past few years at USF have been steeped in seemingly constant change,” she wrote in her application. “From the pandemic and a wake of social recalibration to consolidation and new leadership, our community has endured an immense amount of challenge. Rather than slow us down, these changes have ushered in a new collective empathy and optimism. Now is the time for us to invest in our people, giving faculty, staff and students the tools they need to maximize success within this new paradigm.”
Since arriving, Law oversaw the redo of USF’s new strategic plan and put an end to a controversial chapter by icing plans to develop the USF Forest Preserve on Fletcher Avenue, a move that won over critics of the administration’s previous plans.
She’s met regularly with state legislators, including Senate President Wilton Simpson, whose daughter now serves on the university’s board of trustees, and her former mentee, House Speaker Chris Sprowls. She also has interacted frequently with business leaders, and recently appeared at an innovation summit with the presidents of the University of Florida and the University of Central Florida, talking about the role of the university and economic growth.
Among other moves, Law has issued bonuses to staff who worked through the pandemic and has overseen the beginning of plans for an on-campus stadium. At a board of trustees meeting last year, board members joked that they expected the proposed facility to be built before her interim term was up.
The consultant hired by the school to conduct a national presidential search repeatedly reassured the university’s search committee that they could take their time finding a strong candidate because Law had performed so capably.
Law, 72, is a fifth-generation Floridian and the former CEO of the Fowler White Boggs law firm, which merged with the national firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney. She’s served on numerous boards and chambers across Tampa Bay, and those who have worked with her say her deep roots have served her as a leader.
Will Weatherford, chairman of the USF board of trustees, praised her in a statement.
“She is not only meeting all the goals we set for her, she has also brought the community together, as evidenced by how much support for her we hear on a daily basis,” he wrote. “I believe she has earned the right to be a candidate and should be strongly considered.”
Law joins at least 11 others who have already applied. The university did not immediately provide an updated list. Members of the search committee previously announced they would begin interviewing candidates in March.
Faculty senate president Tim Boaz said while many faculty members initially hoped for a candidate with more experience in academia, it was unclear how strong the field of applicants would be as several universities are searching for presidents at the same time.
“Now that she’s put her application in, there probably will be some people who think this was wired from the beginning and not to bother,” Boaz said of Law. “But if this is the worst we can do, it’s not bad at all.”
He said he was encouraged by his experience working with Law and has had good conversations with her regarding social justice and academic freedom. He pointed to Betty Castor as an example of a good USF president who did not have an academic background.
“(Law) is really good at the communication side of things,” Boaz added. “She has a lot of other opportunities to do things. My sense is she did this in the interim role because she cares about the university. And that’s important.”
Jason Mathis, CEO of St. Petersburg’s Downtown Partnership, worked with Law on securing funding for USF’s Interdisciplinary Center of Excellence in Environmental and Oceanographic Sciences. He said her approachability and presence has reassured the St. Petersburg community in the wake of a process that consolidated the university’s three campuses.
“The university has become much, much more open to ideas from the community,” Mathis said. “Communication levels have improved significantly. Her leadership has inspired a level of optimism for USF, in St. Pete at least. … It’s almost like she’s been preparing her entire career for this role.”
Moniquie Brown, president of the staff senate, said Law has been a good listener on issues of salary equity and an advocate for staff to be included in meetings they previously weren’t invited to.
Law, she said, could provide stability.
“This is a time of uncertainty for a lot of us and this is someone coming in who knows the Florida law and is familiar with the board of trustees and Board of Governors,” she said.
John Ramil, former CEO of TECO, who joined Law on USF’s founding board of trustees in 2001, said he hopes the search committee gives her full consideration.
“I think Rhea’s got a special talent in that she can be firm in her direction of what she wants to accomplish and be flexible enough in her approach to get input from others,” Ramil said. “She doesn’t let that confidence get in the way of getting input and better ways and better solutions to getting there.”
A university spokesperson said Mike Griffin, chairperson of the search committee, would not be available for comment until after the committee meets on March 1. Alberto Pimentel, the consultant helping with the search, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.