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St. Pete campus won’t suffer from consolidation, new USF president says

It’s been six weeks since Steve Currall became USF’s leader. He sat down to talk about consolidation, the downtown Tampa medical school and the future.
University of South Florida president Steve Currall meets with the Tampa Bay Times on Monday. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE   |   Times]
University of South Florida president Steve Currall meets with the Tampa Bay Times on Monday. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times]
Published Aug. 12, 2019

Persistent worries that the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg will suffer as the USF system consolidates its three campuses are unfounded, the school’s new president said Monday.

Speaking with executives, editors and reporters at the Tampa Bay Times, Steve Currall said he has heard comments from faculty and students who fear the St. Petersburg campus will lose its autonomy and identity, and that many of its resources will end up on USF’s main campus in Tampa.

None of that is based in fact, he said.

“Those fears are not well-founded,” he added. “I think a lot of that is just worrying.”

In a wide-ranging discussion that covered his efforts since becoming USF president six weeks ago, Currall also touched on topics like fundraising, the philosophy he brings to the job and USF’s future. Here is some of what he had to say:

Consolidation will lift all three campuses

The biggest question about consolidation remains how the university will be structured once the process is complete in 2020.

Currall and his team are working on a plan that he intends to share sometime in the fall, he said.

“We’re trying to solve this puzzle,” he added. “We’re trying to see how the pieces fit well together.”

The purpose of consolidation, as Currall understands it, is to make USF stronger. The idea is that the three campuses can work better together than apart, and he wants to find “synergies” between them to make that happen.

“I fully grasp the value of St. Petersburg and its promise to further elevate the entire university,” he said. “I don’t need to be convinced of that. It’s just a question of how we do this in a collaborative way.”

Currall noted that because he is new to USF, he doesn’t feel encumbered by existing tensions or politics between campuses. His only goal is to elevate the university as a whole, he said.

“My job is pretty clear,” he said. “Do what’s right for the university, and that means all three locations.”

Medical school is a magnet for talent

The new USF medical school in downtown Tampa wowed Currall on a recent visit.

He said it blew past his high expectations — and he suspects it will have the same impact on potential students and faculty USF tries to recruit.

With its state-of-the-art technology and central location in the Water Street area, the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine will serve as a “magnet for human capital,” Currall said.

“World class faculty are going to see that building and say, ‘Yeah, I’d like to actually have my lab in that building,’” he added, pointing out that there are plenty of housing options nearby that would provide a short commute to work.

Inside the school, educators are taking a mindful approach to health science classes, Currall said. They’re using new teaching strategies that look less like traditional lecturing in favor of more flexible lessons using laboratories and simulators.

He expects more investment in the area near the medical school, both by USF and others, that will contribute to the “growing ecosystem” there, he said.

Education for the future combines arts and tech

As technology becomes increasingly important to society and therefore education and the workforce, Currall argues the arts and humanities studies have a place, too.

The two disciplines combined can be powerful for innovation and business, he said, and he wants to see more collaboration between them at USF.

Currall pointed to a book he read recently called The Fuzzy and the Techie, which argues the worlds of art and technology are converging despite growing emphasis on tech education and jobs.

He agrees with the author, he said, pointing to computer game design and movie-making as examples of what’s possible when differing academic disciplines explore together.

“This idea that the future is about increasing depth of technology — I think that’s short-sighted,” Currall said. “I think there’s a lot of benefits of an interdisciplinary approach to the future.”

Searching for more money from donors

USF’s operating budget sits at about $2.3 billion, and most of it is state funding. Currall wants to change that.

He said he wants to find ways to boost endowments so that the university isn’t as dependent on public funds. Currently, USF’s endowment stands at about $500 million.

“We need to increase the rate at which we are generating philanthropic support,” the president said, calling it one of his key goals looking into USF’s future.

Currall said he still wants to continue the university’s engagement with the Florida Legislature to pursue more state funding. But having more from donors would give USF “greater independence.”

Genshaft made the transition comfortable

Currall has had little contact with longtime USF leader Judy Genshaft since taking her place July 1. But it’s only because she did such a great job passing the torch, he said.

“She was gracious, thoughtful, mindful,” he said of the several weeks between his selection as president and when he took over. “That relationship worked very well.”

Even when Genshaft was still in the job, she included Currall in important conversations to prepare him for what was ahead, he said. That included decisions about USF’s relationship with Tampa General Hospital at the medical school.

He said he knows she is available if something comes up, but hasn’t felt the need to speak with her often during his time as president.

Contact Megan Reeves at mreeves@tampabay.com. Follow @mareevs.

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