Editorial: Next steps for USF's new president

BRONTE WITTPENN   |   TimesStudents walk into the Marshall Student Center located on the University of South Florida campus in Tampa on Wednesday, June 27, 2018.
BRONTE WITTPENN | TimesStudents walk into the Marshall Student Center located on the University of South Florida campus in Tampa on Wednesday, June 27, 2018.
Published March 22, 2019

The glowing reviews that the University of South Florida's board of trustees gave Steven Currall Friday as they named him the university's next president should provide some momentum for the newcomer from Southern Methodist University. Currall performed well in his final interview, and he will have to continue in that vein to impress skeptical students, faculty and community leaders concerned about the integrity of the largely secret search process. Much of that work can be done in the months before retiring president Judy Genshaft leaves in July if Currall remains visible, learns more about the university and Tampa Bay, and shares his vision for the future.

Currall filled in some of the blanks Friday during the final round of interviews. The 60-year-old provost and vice president for academic affairs at SMU in Dallas talked of the need to carefully manage a critical juncture, as USF consolidates its branch campuses under one accreditation for the major research institution and embarks on a new era as a state-designated preeminent university. Currall also wisely talked of 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.

Currall's confidence, collegial manner and understanding of USF's history, reach and growing potential put the board at ease in the final hour of the final day of interviews, and the warmth expressed on all sides was encouraging. He pledged to focus on student achievement, spoke of the opportunities created by the new downtown Tampa medical school and promised to raise USF's visibility by getting out of the office.

The selection of Currall was the culmination of a process that was secretive and predictable. The four finalists were picked by a search committee Monday from a field of 33 applicants. The committee did not rank the finalists or speak at length publicly about why each made the cut. Beyond the perfunctory interviews and staged appearances, the candidates faced little public exposure, which was by design. Friday's self-imposed deadline gave the trustees and the community little more than surface knowledge of a shallow, uninspiring field where Currall clearly stood apart. In the public appearances, he consistently hit the right notes and did not have to endure questions other finalists faced about lost leadership positions. His long experience with fundraising is also a major plus for an institution seeking to raise its profile as a research university and magnet for entrepreneurship.

The process did not well serve the university, the region, taxpayers or the candidates. It gives Currall a pinched view of his obligations as a public employee in a state with constitutional guarantees of open government. But assuming the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system, signs off on the selection March 28, Currall will have an opportunity to push a meaningful agenda. He seems to put students first, recognizes the key role USF plays as a regional economic engine and appreciates the diversity of the growing metro area. The stakes for his success extend far beyond the university's campuses. Now Currall and the board of trustees need to demonstrate to the Tampa Bay region why he is the right leader with the right agenda.