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USF picks Denver educator Christian Hardigree to lead St. Pete campus

The new regional chancellor will start work July 1, replacing Martin Tadlock.
Christian Hardigree speaks during a news conference via Zoom on May 18, 2022, after she was selected as the new regional chancellor at the University of South Florida's St. Petersburg campus.
Christian Hardigree speaks during a news conference via Zoom on May 18, 2022, after she was selected as the new regional chancellor at the University of South Florida's St. Petersburg campus. [ University of South Florida ]
Published May 18|Updated May 18

University of South Florida president Rhea Law has named her selection for the new regional chancellor of the St. Petersburg campus: Christian Hardigree, founding dean of the School of Hospitality at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

The selection was made after Hardigree and two other candidates, including former St. Petersburg deputy mayor Kanika Tomalin, participated in town hall forums and community members provided the president with feedback. Hardigree was commended by business leaders on the search committee for innovative ideas, such as faculty internships and partnering with businesses.

“We are thrilled to welcome Christian Hardigree, a leader who brings a demonstrated history of academic and administrative experience, as well as an excellent record of serving the communities she has been a part of throughout her career,” Law said in a statement announcing the selection. “I am confident she will be an outstanding advocate for the St. Petersburg campus and a trusted partner to me as we work together to continue the University of South Florida’s tremendous momentum.”

During her town hall session, Hardigree said she wanted to be a part of USF after visiting the small waterfront campus just south of the downtown core.

“I absolutely fell in love with the faculty, staff, students and community members I met at USF St. Petersburg,” Hardigree said in a statement Wednesday. “It’s clearly a special place, and I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to lead such a vibrant campus.”

Hardigree, 51, will replace outgoing regional chancellor Martin Tadlock, and is set to begin work on July 1.

The regional chancellor, who reports to the Tampa-based president, leads the faculty and students of the St. Petersburg campus, often interacting with Pinellas officials and the public.

Several members of a USF search committee who narrowed the field of candidates for Law praised Hardigree for her ideas and energy, but some questioned her understanding of the regional chancellor’s role and the strength of her research experience, a priority for many faculty and deans.

Others said she struck the right balance between academia and the community.

The job of the 17-member search committee was to come up with an unranked list of three finalists for Law to consider. Wolf Yeigh, former chancellor at University of Washington Bothell, received the most votes from committee members. Tomalin, the former deputy mayor, had the second-most, ahead of Hardigree and another candidate.

Jason Mathis, CEO of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership and a member of the committee, said Wednesday that Hardigree’s decades of experience in academia will serve her well at USF.

“So much of this is kind of personality driven,” he said. “When you meet somebody, you think ok, can I work with them? Will they be a good fit for USF St. Pete? Will they be a good fit in the community? I think that the new chancellor has a personality and perspective that will really fit in well with the unique aspects of what it means to live and work in St. Petersburg.”

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At a news conference Wednesday, Hardigree said she would begin by listening, but that listening be something she did every day, not just as a tour at the beginning.

During a town hall at the St. Petersburg campus last month, she spoke of her path into academia and goals for the future of the campus.

Originally from rural Georgia, she said she grew up on a farm, where her mother was the primary breadwinner as a social worker. Sustainability wasn’t a “cool and sexy” buzzword, she said, it was a necessity and a value still engrained in her.

She later became a student athlete and a part-time student working two to three jobs at a time to support herself through college, she said. At times, she said, she was food insecure and homeless.

“I’m very student-focused. It’s what drives decision-making in so many areas. And it’s because I really resonate with our students,” she said.

Access to higher education, she said, will be important to her, particularly regarding students in the Pinellas County school district.

Hardigree became a trial lawyer, defending hotels, restaurants and nightclubs in Las Vegas. She starting teaching at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas as a part-time instructor. She stayed for 15 years, eventually becoming a full-time tenure track professor, department chair, associate dean and assistant president.

“I fell in love with students,” she said. “Teaching, like gambling and golf, has a periodic payoff. Those moments where you get that ‘waaaaah’ and it’s just amazing and it makes you want to come back and do it again and again.”

She later went to Kennesaw State University as the founding director and professor of the Institute for Culinary Sustainability and Hospitality, helping to secure the university’s largest gift.

She spoke at the town hall about the importance of a campus carving out a distinct identity, comparing it to Waffle House, where she said hospitality graduates can quickly earn six-figure salaries.

“What we need to do is figure out what’s our Waffle House,” she said.

She also talked about “upskilling” faculty and finding opportunities to embed them in local businesses.

Alison Barlow, executive director of the St. Petersburg Innovation District and a member of the search committee, called Hardigree “a great combination of someone with an academic background and an attention and understanding of an involved community.”

“I think that’s really critical,” Barlow said. “We spend a lot of time and energy talking about placing students with companies, but probably one of our strongest touchpoints for students is the faculty. If the faculty can create deeper bonds with the business community or whoever’s going to be hiring their students, it not only benefits what’s going to be happening in the classroom but also future placements.”

Law said in a virtual news conference Wednesday that her choice was based in part on community feedback.

“What I specifically was looking for was someone who could be a true leader,” she said. “Someone who could take this campus and move it to the next step. We have been blessed with support from our Legislature, support from our donors. We need someone with an academic background, someone that is capable of putting together curriculum and programming. I also looked for someone who would fit in with the community. Someone who would fit in with the chamber and the downtown partnership and others and be a real integral part of St. Petersburg.”

During the town hall, Hardigree was asked her thoughts about building bridges on both sides of the political aisle, with the reminder that the campus was part of a state university.

“It’s an elephant in the room,” she said. “We’ve seen what’s happened politically for higher ed. We’ve got to do a better job of telling our story. State governments were our angel investor for years and years and years, and not anymore.”

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