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  1. Opinion

Joe Henderson: USF can be elite without being elitist

Sure, Judy Genshaft led the University of South Florida to preeminent status during her 19 years as president there. Instead of a fallback choice for college, it became a destination — that is, if students have the grades and test scores to qualify.

It isn't easy.

USF became an economic dynamo in the Tampa Bay area on her watch, and its new medical school is a cornerstone of the downtown Tampa revival. She oversaw an incredible expansion and makeover of the campus, and donors started writing big checks whenever she was around. She had that effect on people.

Upon her retirement on July 1 though, she did leave her successor, Steve Currall, an opening to make his mark. If he solves the parking problem that has been a part of life at USF forever, he might jump straight from university president status to sainthood.

I jest, of course.

I'm not sure it's possible to solve the eternal shortage of parking spots at the Fowler Avenue campus. However, nearly 51,000 students are enrolled at USF, and many of them told their new president that finding a solution is a priority. Anyone who has rushed to a meeting or class there only to circle endlessly looking for an empty spot that doesn't require making a cross-country hike to their destination will agree.

And therein, I believe, lies a significant challenge for USF's seventh president.

USF used to be known in the community as Drive-Thru U. It got an image as the place to go if you couldn't go anywhere else. The student population grew rapidly, and a fair percentage were scholars who weren't quite as dedicated in their high school years as those who qualified for Florida or Florida State.

That didn't mean it stayed that way.

For many, the light bulb of learning clicked on when they began attending USF.

The community should be proud of what this school has become, but it's a legitimate fear that it means abandoning an important part of its heritage. It always has been an urban, non-traditional institution. There are thousands of USF graduates in the Tampa Bay area who attended there part-time as adults while working full-time.

They took weekend classes, night classes, and kept after it until they earned their degrees. Or maybe they didn't quite earn those degrees because there were kids to raise and households to manage, but the experience of even attending USF for as long as they did was an important part of their lives.

Those people are as green and gold as any other USF alum. They battled for those parking spaces too.

I mention all this because when Currall was interviewing for the job, he paid homage to those Bulls who didn't follow the traditional learning path. He correctly said that he doesn't want to abandon USF's traditional mission of serving working adults and less privileged students.

That's a point that I don't believe is made often enough for a university like this one. Balancing the lofty academic standards needed to keep the preeminent status without abandoning those on a different path is tricky, but it's encouraging to hear Currall acknowledge that it's important.

My father-in-law, who turned 94 on the Fourth of July, was a professor at USF. He taught vocational education at a time when admission standards weren't as stringent, and there is no telling how many lives he changed for the better during his career.

The things he taught aren't emphasized much these days at large institutions like this one, but there should be room for those classes and the students who take them.

So, welcome aboard, Steve Currall. Following Judy Genshaft won't be easy because she truly transformed USF into something many believed it could never be. Currall's challenge is to build on that.

USF can be elite without being elitist.

Oh, and don't forget to work on that parking problem. It's a real thing.

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