A new era begins Monday for the University of South Florida as its seventh president, Steven Currall, takes over from Judy Genshaft after her record 19 years at the helm. USF matured during Genshaft’s reign to become a preeminent state university and a major economic driver on the west coast of Florida. Currall will need to build on these achievements while staying true to USF’s local mission and furthering the competitiveness and quality of life of the Tampa Bay region.
Currall emerged this spring as the obvious choice among the finalists in a 33-candidate field, and he brings an experience, perspective and agenda that is robust and appropriate for the times. The former provost and vice president for academic affairs at Southern Methodist University in Dallas won over USF’s Board of Trustees with his plan for carefully managing the university during this critical juncture, as USF consolidates its three campuses under one umbrella and embarks on a new chapter as a state-designated preeminent institution, joining the older and more established University of Florida and Florida State University.
Currall won the job by underscoring the need to balance USF’s ambitions to become a top academic and research institution with its historical mission of serving working adults and less privileged students in a diverse metropolitan area. He pledged to focus on student achievement, using a range of metrics to keep students engaged and on track to graduate. Currall recognizes that the reach of an urban university extends far beyond the campus; he is a strong supporter of USF’s new medical school in downtown Tampa and other initiatives that expand the university’s profile in the region. Currall’s solid grasp of the university’s roots and its growing influence are key strengths he brings to this transition period. His comfort and experience with fundraising promise to build on one of Genshaft’s enduring legacies. He also has talked of launching a “strategic renewal” process to bring the university’s priorities into focus.
To succeed, Currall will need reach out internally and beyond. Among his immediate early challenges will be to ensure a smooth consolidation of the Tampa campus with the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and the Sarasota-Manatee campus that the Legislature required last year. There have been some bumps, and Gov. Ron DeSantis recently signed into law additional legislation that makes clear USFSP and Sarasota-Manatee are to be branch campuses with their own faculty, administration and ability to develop budgets and tailor programs to their students. Tip to the new guy: While the USF College of Marine Science has long reported to Tampa even though it is based in St. Petersburg, the consolidation law requires it to now report to St. Petersburg.
Currall will learn quickly a university president in Florida is also a political animal who has to work with the Legislature, which has no compunction about micromanaging universities. While USF was named a preeminent state university in 2018 after years of working toward the target, lawmakers awarded no new preeminent funding in the 2019-2020 budget that takes effect today. Currall will need to be an effective ambassador and salesman who can rally the region and the university’s support base behind his agenda. His sensitivity to the branch campuses will be critical to maintaining the broadest possible regional constituency.
The new president seems anxious to make the right impressions. His first day on the job includes an 8 a.m. appearance Monday on the USF Tampa campus, where he will meet with faculty members and the media, followed by meetings with students and staff later the same day in St. Petersburg and Sarasota. His first week also includes meetings with business and community leaders across the bay area. This is a promising start for the new leader of one of Tampa Bay’s most important assets.