USF names two finalists for president. Interim leader Rhea Law is one of them.

The other is Jeffrey W. Talley, former chief and commanding general of the U.S. Army Reserve, who also has held academic posts.
Jeffrey Talley, left, and Rhea Law emerged Tuesday as finalists to be the eighth president of the University of South Florida. Law has served as USF's interim president since August. Talley is a former chief and commanding general of the U.S. Army Reserve.
Jeffrey Talley, left, and Rhea Law emerged Tuesday as finalists to be the eighth president of the University of South Florida. Law has served as USF's interim president since August. Talley is a former chief and commanding general of the U.S. Army Reserve. [ Courtesy of Jeffrey Talley and USF ]
Published March 1, 2022|Updated March 2, 2022

The search for the University of South Florida’s next president appears to be coming to a close after interim president Rhea Law entered her name for consideration last week.

The USF presidential search committee on Tuesday narrowed its focus to Law and Jeffrey W. Talley, the former chief and commanding general of the U.S. Army Reserve and a former department chairperson at Southern Methodist University.

Committee members settled on the two after going through a list of 18 applicants. They planned to interview both candidates in a public forum from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Friday at the Gibbons Alumni Center on the Tampa campus.

In a news release later in the day, the university said the committee “may recommend” Law and Talley for further interviews with the USF board of trustees. After that, it said, “any finalists” would be invited to participate in town hall events at each USF campus, “followed by an interview with (the trustees).”

The release described the two as having “advanced” in the process, not as finalists. But based on the committee’s discussion Tuesday, it was unclear how a wider group of candidates would materialize.

Since Law applied for the job last week, 97 percent of the candidates being vetted for the job declined to formally apply, said Alberto Pimentel, the consultant helping with the USF search.

“It wasn’t for lack of interest in the role,” Pimentel said. “It wasn’t because they lost interest in the university. It was simply that the dynamics had changed. Because they thought (Law) was already doing a good job, and they thought it wasn’t in their best interest to participate.”

Another factor that led to candidates expressing hesitancy, Pimentel said, was the job opening at the University of Florida, which is looking to replace president Kent Fuchs when he steps down later this year. That search is set to begin this month.

Still, the committee went through the pool, which included a vice president of a nongovernmental organization in Kuala Lumpur, a former CEO in Bahrain, a former university president in Bogota, Colombia, and a provost in Dublin, Ireland.

Committee members expressed interest in Vanja Quinones, provost of Pace University and former associate provost at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York system.

Her background for the role “appears to be on track,” Pimentel said. However, he noted that Pace, a private university in New York, is not highly focused on research.

Pimentel said he began receiving nominations for Law last fall. As they grew in frequency, he informed her two weeks ago in a call. He said she expressed interest in continuing the work she started after taking over as interim president in August.

“She doesn’t fashion herself as an academic, but she does understand the need to surround herself with very strong academics,” Pimentel said. He pointed to the “resurgence of energy” surrounding USF after her appointment as interim president.

Search committee members followed his comments with an outpouring of support for Law, 72.

“Even though academia is very important, we do not expect this person to teach a class,” said Jose Valiente, chairperson of the USF Foundation. “We don’t have to introduce Rhea to anyone. Rhea is well-known in the community, in the university and in Tallahassee.”

Student body president Julia Cunningham expressed full support for Law, talking about her willingness to hand out hot dogs and talk to students at a tailgate.

John Couris, CEO of Tampa General Hospital, said he was in “complete support” of a Law presidency and that she understands the role of the university and economic growth.

Ken Jones, a member of the state Board of Governors, also pointed to her leadership through the merging of her law firm and her status as a USF alumna.

“It’s really remarkable she’s been able to do so many things so well for so long,” he said. “She knows the institution.”

Debbie Sembler, a former USF trustee, praised Law’s personality. “We know what we’re getting with Rhea,” she said.

The committee also expressed interest in Talley, who serves as president and CEO of P3i Group, a firm he founded in Arizona. The firm is an advisory group for government, businesses, nonprofits and academia.

In addition to leading the U.S. Army Reserve from 2012 to 2016, Talley, 62, was a vice president at IBM and chairperson of the civil and environmental engineering department at Southern Methodist University. He also has held several other positions in the private sector, including teaching roles at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Southern California.

“Simply put, I want to be your next president but not as a stepping stone to something else,” Talley wrote in his application, which outlined his goals for USF.

He called himself a good listener who takes a “big tent” collaborative approach to leadership. ”The stereotypes you often see in movies about generals being overly direct militant leaders is not correct,” he wrote. “If selected as your next president, I won’t disappoint you.”

Search committee member and former Tampa Bay Buccaneers star Derrick Brooks said the variety of experiences Talley brought from in and outside academia could be beneficial.

“I looked at him as a diverse leadership style,” Brooks said. “I was intrigued by the things he laid out.”

Braulio Colon, the only other committee member who spoke in favor of Talley, said he was one of the top applicants in the pool. Colon expressed strong support for Law, but thought Talley was worth consideration.

“As a leader, he’s clearly contributed much to this country, given his military service,” he said.

Talley was also named a semifinalist in last year’s presidential search at Louisiana State University, according to The Advocate in Baton Rouge. He holds a bachelor’s degree from LSU in addition to a doctoral degree from Carnegie Mellon University and an executive MBA from the University of Oxford, in Oxford, England.

He holds master’s degrees from the U.S. Army War College, Johns Hopkins University, Washington University and Assumption College, according to his resume. Talley also has earned two Army Distinguished Service medals and three Bronze Star medals and was recognized by the U.S. Senate upon retirement in 2016.

Pimentel also asked committee members for their thoughts on another candidate who recently applied: Sten Vermund, dean of Yale’s School of Public Health, who previously held positions at Vanderbilt University and is a member of the National Academy of Medicine.

“Given the strength of his academic credentials, I suspect the faculty would view him in a very positive light,” Pimentel said.

Tammy Allen, the faculty member on the committee, said his background and letter of interest seemed to align well with USF. Couris said Vermund’s credentials were impressive, but noted Yale’s School of Public Health had fewer than 600 students.

Couris said it was time for the committee to focus on the type of president they had set out to seek — “a strong leader with a strong vision that understands big and complex organizations right out of the gate.”

He added the process has been transparent, “but we need to accelerate this.”