The surprise retirement of president Steve Currall marks a leadership void for the University of South Florida and the Tampa Bay region. Whatever the reason — and the details are murky — Currall’s departure brings more uncertainty at an unwelcome time, as the nation faces a new surge in the pandemic, as the university enters a challenging phase and as the Tampa Bay economy works to rebound.
Currall announced Monday he would step down effective Aug. 2 from a post he’s held for only two years. He said the “intensity” of the work had “put a strain on my health and my family,” and that he planned to take professional leave with the option of returning as a tenured full professor. The board of trustees will consider granting him President Emeritus status, and provost Ralph Wilcox will serve as acting president before the trustees name an interim leader.
Currall, 62, certainly had a full plate. He completed the consolidation of USF’s three separately accredited campuses into one university, as mandated by the Florida Legislature. He guided USF through the start of the pandemic and last year’s protests for racial justice in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Currall has also had to clean up several unforced errors, such as the university’s mishandling of its proposal to phase out undergraduate programs in the College of Education, and the pursuit of development offers for its forest preserve in north Tampa, which caught faculty, students and the community by surprise.
It’s natural that budget cuts, the pandemic and competing regional interests would short-circuit the honeymoon of any new chief executive, especially an out-of-state academic who had limited opportunities to cultivate strong civic and political connections as Florida shut down due to COVID last year. The speed of his departure suggests that Currall and the university both wanted a quick, clean break. But the presidency is not some simple office job. The university owes the community a fuller explanation of why the leader of a major public institution is leaving so hastily. It’s another reminder that universities do applicants no favor by cocooning them in the process of presidential searches. Higher education is part political sport in Florida, and the sooner candidates acclimate to the environment that surrounds these posts, the better they’ll manage the public scrutiny that comes with the job.
Currall’s departure means another lengthy, expensive search for a successor. The university should look for candidates who can continue to raise USF’s academic profile, build political support for USF in Tallahassee and across the region and expand educational opportunities, especially for nontraditional students, minorities and those facing financial hurdles to obtaining their degrees. Currall’s successor should also build on his work in addressing long-running concerns from some minority leaders over the university’s diversity policies and equal opportunity initiatives.
The vacancy creates another transition in a major area institution just as other Florida metros are scrambling to compete in a post-pandemic era. In St. Petersburg, term-limited Mayor Rick Kriseman leaves in January after eight years in office. Rick Homans, the chief executive of the Tampa Bay Partnership, which has been a driving force in promoting job development and transportation improvements across the region, is also departing. Currall’s leaving adds to the learning curve the region faces at a highly competitive time.
USF can tamp down on the uncertainty by being more open about this change in leadership, and about the expectations and accountability that will surround the search for Currall’s successor.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.