When something big is about to happen, you can feel it. All the signs start to point in the right direction. Momentum takes hold and builds to an unstoppable flywheel effect until one day — lift off.
Is there any doubt that the University of South Florida is on the cusp of this kind of momentum? Is there any other university in the country with as much forward-motion as this university, at this time? With a new president, historic new funding, plans for a new on-campus stadium and a steady drumbeat of alumni and philanthropic support, we are experiencing a remarkable transformation for USF and for Tampa Bay.
Just two weeks ago, we celebrated the most successful legislative session in USF’s history, with hundreds of millions in new funding. Included is an additional $55 million in operating funding — the largest single-year investment in operational support ever at USF. Additionally, we received significant funding for initiatives critical to Florida’s future, such as cybersecurity, nursing and environmental and oceanographic sciences.
While the budget now awaits review by the governor, we owe gratitude to our legislative leaders, especially Tampa Bay’s own USF alum, House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson, for their recognition of USF’s immense potential.
As a former member of the Legislature, I know how difficult it can be to make decisions about precious state dollars with many competing priorities. That was especially true this year, with significant funding available thanks to an optimistic economic outlook for Florida. Amid many requests, our legislative leaders invested in the future by supporting higher education — helping create a talent and innovation pipeline for years to come.
On the heels of that announcement, we selected USF’s eighth president, Rhea Law, who was confirmed by the Board of Governors this week.
President Law has contributed to the university’s growth from nearly every vantage point. She is the first USF alumna to become president. She began her career as a staff member in the Office of Research. She was the first and only female chair of the USF Board of Trustees. She has spent her career building relationships that provide major benefits to the university. She has held leadership roles for nearly every major advocacy group in Tampa Bay and Florida, giving her a unique understanding of USF’s history, present and future.
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During her interviews, she talked about the many projects she has been working on as interim president, including building a sustainable budget and infrastructure model, supporting our branch campuses, promoting a culture of inclusive excellence and — one of my favorites — building an on-campus stadium at USF.
This project in particular is garnering much enthusiasm. Just a few weeks ago, we celebrated a kick-off gift of $5 million for the stadium from USF benefactors Frank and Carol Morsani.
That gift was announced on the same day as another $1.1 million commitment from longtime USF Board of Trustees member John Ramil. Then last week, USF announced a $10.6 million gift from Arnie and Lauren Bellini for the USF Bellini Center for Talent Development to focus on creating job opportunities for students through the USF Muma College of Business. Philanthropic support at all levels — from these multimillion-dollar gifts to monthly commitments from alumni and friends — are investments in our entire community.
Finally, this week USF opened a 120,000-square foot research facility that will support Tampa Bay’s startup ecosystem and further our region’s success in attracting new or expanding companies. Featuring state-of-the-art labs and meeting spaces, the building brings together researchers, entrepreneurs and investors to enhance the innovation and knowledge economy.
When I think about all this momentum, I don’t just think about the immediate impact in the coming weeks and months. I also think about what we’ll see in the next five, 10 or even 20 years as the seeds planted begin to bear fruit.
We can feel the flywheel turning. Now is the time for us to rally around our beloved university as we embark on a bright new future together.
Will Weatherford is the chair of the University of South Florida Board of Trustees.