Editorial: Don’t rush to pick USF president

There is a shallow pool of four finalists, and USF trustees should feel no pressure to pick Judy Genshaft’s successor by Friday’s self-imposed deadline.
The fountain leading to the Marshall Center on the campus of the University of South Florida in Tampa.  CHRIS URSO/STAFF
The fountain leading to the Marshall Center on the campus of the University of South Florida in Tampa. CHRIS URSO/STAFF
Published March 19
Updated March 20

The list of four finalists to become the next president of the University of South Florida is uninspiring and unimpressive for such a rising research university with higher aspirations. Those who defend the secrecy of the search process driven by a private consultant have some explaining to do about the rigor of this disappointing effort. As interviews with the finalists begin today, the USF board of trustees should feel no pressure to select the next president from this list by Friday’s self-imposed deadline unless someone exceeds expectations.

Of the four finalists chosen to succeed Judy Genshaft none are university presidents and two recently left leadership positions elsewhere amid controversy. The search committee did not rank them or publicly speak at length about why each made the cut. The finalists were picked by three groups of committee members who met Monday in a cordoned off area on USF’s Tampa campus, capturing perfectly the closed, managed nature of this hiring process that should have been out in the open from the start.

Two of the four candidates appear implausible. Debasish “Deba” Dutta, 61, a professor of engineering at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, formerly served as chancellor there but was asked to resign by the university’s president after only a year, according to NJ.com. Jeffrey S. Vitter, 63, resigned as the University of Mississippi’s chancellor in November after a bumpy three years and well before his contract would have been up in 2020. Why he left the position was never made clear, according the Clarion Ledger in Jackson, Miss. USF trustee and search committee leader Les Muma says he is comfortable with the backgrounds of Dutta and Vitter, but both candidates have some explaining to do in public this week before they should be seriously considered.

Wanda Blanchett, 53, the interim provost and executive vice chancellor of academic affairs at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, was praised by one search committee member as “a star in our eyes.” Muma called her a strong candidate, adding: “Even if she doesn’t make it in this round, she will be a university president one day.” That suggests it might be a reach for her to be named president of USF before week’s end.

That leaves Steven C. Currall, 60, who has been provost and vice president for academic affairs at Southern Methodist University in Dallas since January 2016. He also has experience as the chancellor’s faculty adviser at the University of California, Davis. Search committee member and former USF trustee Rhea Law called him “significantly more qualified” than the others she reviewed.

In 2000, Genshaft emerged from a list of seven semifinalists that included two university presidents, two former acting presidents and several provosts looking to grow into the job. At the time, several members of the search advisory committee bemoaned that there were no heavy hitters. But Genshaft - then the 51-year-old provost/vice president for academic affairs at the University at Albany, State University of New York - impressed with her energy and demonstrated skill at fundraising. Her long tenure and success at promoting and growing USF into one of the state’s three preeminent universities validates the leap of faith by those who supported her 19 years ago.

The question this week is whether anyone in this shallow pool of candidates vying to succeed Genshaft is worth a similar leap of faith. The stakes are high for the university and for the region, and USF cannot afford to make a mistake that would erode the momentum Genshaft has built over the years. If an obvious ace does not emerge this week, the board of trustees should not feel compelled on Friday to pick from the weak hand they were dealt.