After hour-long interviews of contrasting tones Friday, the committee searching for the University of South Florida’s next president voted to advance Jeffrey W. Talley and interim USF president Rhea Law to the next phase — campus visits and an interview with the school’s board of trustees.
“You have this national leader who is going to bring a lot of new thoughts and ideas, but you also have someone who has just done so much in seven months,” said Mike Griffin, the search committee chairperson and a board of trustees member. “I’m thrilled we’ve got more than one option for the board of trustees to consider.”
The two candidates emerged from a pool of 20 applicants, including two names added this week but not discussed, in a search that began in September. To help with the process, the university has hired SP&A Executive search, a California consulting firm being paid $160,000, plus travel, lodging and research expenses.
Talley, 62, was interviewed first. “You can call me Jeff,” he said during questioning.
“Thanks, Dr. Talley,” Melissa Seixas, a search committee member, said before asking about his thoughts on diversity, equity and inclusion.
He pitched himself as a leader who could take USF’s reputation from that of a regional university to one with a national profile.
He drew on his experiences as chief of the U.S. Army Reserve and spoke of diversifying the top ranks and defending a budget. He discussed his days in faculty positions, “where the rubber meets the road,” at Notre Dame, Johns Hopkins, the University of Southern California and Southern Methodist University. At the latter school, he served as a department chairperson.
He said he would want to keep all faculty in touch with graduate and undergraduate students to lessen the burden on junior faculty, and he detailed metrics that could help move the university closer to its goals. Those include a Top 25 ranking and an invitation to the Association of American Universities, a select group of top research schools in the U.S.
Talley suggested re-doing USF’s strategic plan to include more details on how to achieve those goals. The current strategic plan, which was reworked under Law, was approved in December by the state Board of Governors. Talley spoke of the importance of securing resources for the university, but apologized for not having the benefit of seeing USF’s exact balance sheets.
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In his closing remarks he had questions for committee members, asking about the faculty’s biggest concerns and the diversity of the university’s staff.
“Excellence happens by choice, not by chance,” Talley said in closing. He wished the committee and Law well and said he hoped they found the best fit.
“If that’s not me, it’s OK,” he said. “Go Bulls!”
Minutes later Law, 72, entered the room with a “Hi Guys!” and was greeted with several rounds of “Good morning Rhea.” Committee members later referred to her as “President Law” during questioning.
Law, a prominent Tampa attorney who has served on numerous chambers and boards, painted the picture of her last seven months since being appointed interim president.
She pitched herself as someone who could provide continuity and stability to USF’s trajectory. She noted she was in Tallahassee on Thursday and in the governor’s office talking about non-four year degree offerings USF could help provide.
A strong financial foundation would be essential for USF to meet its goals, she said, speaking of her work in helping secure capital funds that appear to be on track in the Legislature for USF’s branch campuses. She described how she sorted through a controversial plan to develop the USF Forest Preserve and created an additional advisory committee for accessibility issues.
She pulled out a list of 111 requests people submitted during her listening tours. Many of them, she said, had been completed because they were “low-hanging fruit.”
“Lots of things we could do easily, but no one had ever asked them before,” she said. “It’s all about communication. It’s all about listening.”
Law also committed to a national search to replace outgoing provost Ralph Wilcox if selected. The topic has been a point of contention at the University of Central Florida, where faculty have spoken about the absence of a national search.
“I think it’s one of the most major decisions you can make,” Law said. “I’m not an academic. I’m more of a business person that loves this place…. If selected for it, I’d start that immediately.”
A self-described “terrible failure at retirement,” Law said the past seven months have brought her happiness.
“I don’t look at it as a job,” she said. “I’m not asking for a job. This is something that needs to be done and I’m willing to do it if you’ll have me.”
The committee expressed support for both candidates.
Board of Governors representative and committee member Ken Jones said he liked Talley’s competitive streak and desire to outperform the University of Florida and Florida State University.
Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers star Derrick Brooks said he liked the way Talley translated skills between government, the private sector and higher education. Tammy Allen, a faculty representative on the committee, said she liked his vision.
“The more I heard him speak, the more impressed I became,” Allen said. “He said something really important. He said that the reputation of USF is regional. I think this is a person who can bring USF to the next stage.”
But others felt Law was better prepared for the job.
John Couris, CEO of Tampa General Hospital, said she would bring stability.
“Listening to president Law, it’s organic,” he said. “She knows this university, she knows this community, she understands this state.... She talked about continuity and the importance of continuity. That’s what the university and what the partners of the university need.”
Brooks said the depth of her relationships in the community were an asset to the university and Jones said she would be starting on “second base.”
Seven of the 11 committee members present voted to advance Talley in the process. All voted to advance Law.
Tim Boaz, president of the faculty senate, said he was encouraged listening to both interviews. While he considered both candidates strong, he said he was disappointed in the overall size and quality of the applicant pool.
Griffin, the committee chairperson, said the university hopes to have a candidate by the Board of Governors’ meeting at the end of the month.
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