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Whatever happened to former USF president Steve Currall?

After leaving his post last year, he’s still at USF but also spending time at a big-name university.
Steve Currall stepped down as University of South Florida president last July and took a 15-month professional development leave. Lately, he's been researching as a Harvard University visiting scholar.
Steve Currall stepped down as University of South Florida president last July and took a 15-month professional development leave. Lately, he's been researching as a Harvard University visiting scholar. [ Times (2019) ]
Published Jun. 20

Nearly a year ago, Steve Currall suddenly stepped down as the University of South Florida president before quietly taking his leave and ceding the reins to Rhea Law.

What has he been doing since then? Where is he now?

Currall, 63, has become a USF professor, a move allowed under his severance agreement. But he’s spent the last few months as an unpaid visiting scholar at Harvard University, working with a colleague on a paper about making the U.S. more competitive.

Curall, who cited health and stress as his reasons for stepping down, took a 15-month professional development leave to retool and has largely stayed out of the spotlight.

After two years at the forefront of USF’s internal conflicts and growing questions about the role of partisan politics at Florida universities, he now spends six to eight hours at a time immersed in research and writing, he said in an interview.

The visiting scholar role took shape when he reconnected with a former colleague.

After taking some time to recharge and travel, Currall said, he reached out to Venkatesh Narayanamurti, a former dean of Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. He told his friend it would be fun to work together again.

Currall said he pays for his own housing and travel to Cambridge, Mass., to occasionally work with Narayanmurti and other colleagues in person.

The paper, co-authored by Currall and Narayanmurti, recently appeared in Issues, a quarterly journal about science and technology. It focuses on a structure for the National Science Foundation that would strengthen U.S. competitiveness through innovation, something Currall said higher education institutions play a part in.

Asked how he thought recent Florida policies impacting universities may affect national competitiveness, Currall said he thought it was about finding a balance between state oversight of public funds and allowing university leaders to operate without “extensive involvement.”

Asked if he experienced much state intervention as USF president, he said: “All leaders of higher ed in Florida are experiencing this new dialogue, this new debate about state government in higher education.... I think it’s systemic.... I’ll just leave it at that.”

He added, “In my announcement about my transition I was clear about my reasons, and those reasons were all true.”

Currall declined to talk much about the current climate in Florida higher education, largely out of respect for Law, a Tampa lawyer and USF alumna who served as interim president before being hired for the permanent job in March.

“Rhea has a big job to do and she’s working very hard to do that,” Currall said. “And I think she needs to be given the opportunity to do it without a lot of commentary from me or others.”

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He said he preferred to talk about his current work.

The recent paper was spurred by companion bills in the U.S. House and Senate designed to make the nation more competitive in the global economy. They propose creating a new directorate, or division, for the National Science Foundation, which often provides funding for researchers and universities. The foundation currently has seven directorates that support science, engineering, research and education. For the first time in decades, it recently created a new one focused on technology and innovation, Currall said.

“We’ve been observing for many years this dialogue about U.S. competitiveness, and then we were reading in the popular press about the legislation ... and that’s really what got us thinking about writing this paper,” Currall said.

The paper drew upon some of his past research in organizational psychology and laid the groundwork for how the new directorate could maximize success by adopting six principles, ranging from tolerating risk to appointing inspiring leaders.

A new National Science Foundation directorate focused on innovation is something research universities in Florida and the I-4 corridor research partnership could benefit from, said Currall, who is working with Narayanamurti on a second paper.

He said his professional development leave ends in November, though he may keep the dual appointment at Harvard. At that time, he plans to become more engaged at USF’s Muma College of Business.

Until then, according to his severance agreement, he continues to earn his president’s salary, which came to $575,000 annually, plus bonuses he earned as president.

Currall said he hopes to continue working to advance higher education as a tool for upward mobility and regional economic development. He said his new schedule allows him more time to contribute to research and get involved with students.

“That’s been part of my career mission for many years, and I’m pleased to be able to carry that on now in a slightly different role than when I was president,” he said. “Kind of a continuation of my mission.”

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