Rhea Law confirmed as USF president by Florida’s Board of Governors

Her compensation package of up to $1.1M is one of the highest in the U.S. and in the range of the state’s other large universities.
Rhea Law was confirmed as the University of South Florida's eighth president on Wednesday by the state Board of Governors. A Tampa lawyer with deep roots at the university, she had been serving as interim president since early August.
Rhea Law was confirmed as the University of South Florida's eighth president on Wednesday by the state Board of Governors. A Tampa lawyer with deep roots at the university, she had been serving as interim president since early August. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published March 30, 2022|Updated March 30, 2022

Florida’s Board of Governors confirmed Rhea Law as the University of South Florida’s eighth president on Wednesday, also approving a contract that would make her one of the highest paid public university presidents in the country.

Selecting Law “was not our intention when we started the process,” USF board of trustees chairperson Will Weatherford told the state board.

He said the one condition he had for Law when he appointed her as interim president last August was that she would not apply for the permanent role, and she expressed no interest in it.

“Something interesting happened shortly after that,” Weatherford said. “It didn’t take three months for me to realize president Law had an uncanny ability to lead our university.... You can’t replace passion.”

Under her three-year contract, Law could earn slightly under $1.1 million in total annual compensation, including some she will receive later.

The agreement states her base salary will be $655,000 with an additional $131,000 to be added to a deferred compensation plan every year of the contract. She could also earn up to $300,000 in performance bonuses each year, with 70 percent of that amount to be determined by USF’s board of trustees and 30 percent to be determined by Weatherford.

According to data compiled by the Chronicle of Higher Education using 2020 numbers, the package puts Law among the nation’s 12 highest paid university presidents.

In addition, Law will be granted a $1,000 monthly stipend for automobile costs and authority to use the Lifsey House on the Tampa campus for “university functions, meetings with faculty, staff, students, and community leaders, and for official entertainment.”

The Lifsey House, built in 1993 with the intention of being an on-campus home for the university’s president, has had only two occupants, including the university’s last president, Steve Currall, who stepped down in July. Law has elected not to live there.

By comparison, Currall earned a base salary of $575,000 per year with a “discretionary” performance-based award. His contract also offered an additional 20 percent of his base salary to be put into a deferred compensation plan that would be forfeited if he were to “voluntarily resign” within five years or be fired “with cause.”

However, the agreement Currall signed with the board of trustees upon the announcement of his stepping back to a faculty position says he was entitled to the deferred amount for the time he had already served.

Under state law, a university president can be paid a maximum of $200,000 from public funds. The rest of the money comes through private sources. In Law’s case, it will come from the USF Foundation.

After Law was unanimously selected by USF’s board of trustees last week, the head of human resources, Angela Sklenka, presented a compensation study done in partnership with Segal, a consulting firm that used Chronicle of Higher Education data.

That study estimated that the presidents of Florida State University and the University of Central Florida, both appointed over the last two years, each earned more than $1 million in total compensation. It also said University of Florida president Kent Fuchs earned more than $1.3 million. The Chronicle of Higher Education shows Fuchs was paid more than $1.5 million in 2020.

The elevated range, Sklenka said, would allow the university to compensate Law “in a way that reflects USF’s lofty goals and also takes into consideration our place in the country, a metropolitan city in Tampa.”

Ken Jones, a Board of Governors member who served on USF’s search committee, assured the board the committee’s work was thorough.

“The process unfolded exactly as it should have unfolded,” he said. “Nothing about this process was out of the ordinary.”

He said Law’s credentials were impressive, but her passion for the university as an alumna was even more so.

“She’s also got the intangible aspect you can’t define,” he said.

Board of Governors member Alan Levine reminded Law of Fuchs’ confirmation, when he was reminded of the University of Florida’s goal to be ranked among the top 10 public universities in the nation. Fuchs told them he could take them to the top 5. Then he did.

Levine asked Law if she was ready to set goals like that for USF.

“I’m so glad you asked that question,” Law said. She noted that reaching the top 25 was part of the university’s strategic plan, as is the goal of gaining membership to the Association of American Universities, a group of 66 leading research universities in the U.S.

“We are working very hard on that as we speak,” Law said. “We’re going to get there.”

She said that, beyond rankings, she hopes to see the university become a force in the state and work with other schools to solve Florida’s problems. It’s part of why she changed her mind and wanted to apply for the permanent job.

In a message to the university community sent after her confirmation, Law outlined her priorities including filling major leadership roles in her administration and advancing plans for an on-campus stadium.

“There’s so much promise, there’s so much opportunity,” she told the Board of Governors. “I’d like to see that to fruition.”