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Currall's Tenure Has Been 'Tumultuous And Controversial,' USF Forest Preserve Activist Says

A rickety wooden bridge crossing over a mossy green water filled with cypress knees and other vegetation.
Jeannie Mounger
Cypress Creek, a tributary of the Hillsborough River, runs through the USF Forest Preserve, providing a wildlife corridor to other conservation lands to the East and West.

An organizer for a group that's been fighting the University of South Florida administration over a proposal to develop a preserve in Tampa said he was “quite surprised” about the sudden retirement of USF’s president.

Reaction continues over the news Monday that University of South Florida President Steve Currall is retiring after two years on the job.

Stephen Hesterberg is a doctoral candidate for USF's Department of Integrative Biology, and is also an organizer with Save USF Forest Preserve. He, other students and some faculty have spent months protesting since the university released a public call in April for redevelopment ideas of the USF Forest Preserve, which is known for its ecological, educational and cultural significance.

Hesterberg described Currall's short tenure at USF as "tumultuous and controversial."

Portrait of Stephen Hesterberg looking directly into the camera wearing an earth-tone plaid shirt, and a blurry background of greenery.
Luke Myers
Stephen Hesterberg, along with other USF students, has gone from scientist to activist in a matter of months to fight for conserving the USF Forest Preserve.

"I think that overall, what the common thread through President Currall's tenure has been is a administration and small group of administrators making broad decisions without input from the collective body," said Hesterberg.

He did, however, give Currall credit for seeing the university through a very difficult time with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hesterberg is cautiously optimistic that the USF Board of Trustees will pick a new leader who listens to students, faculty and staff.

But, he said, Currall's departure won't pause the group's plan to permanently protect the preserve. They are now taking their case to Tampa City Council and the Florida Legislature.

"This is more than just USF. This is entrusted by the state of Florida to USF. And so, this is all of our land, and we're going to make sure that we do everything in our power to make sure that it stays protected," he said.

The student-led advocacy group has already managed to get the support of Hillsborough County commissioners and the USF Faculty Senate. Next week, the USF Student Government Senate will take up a resolution to oppose any development on the preserve and demand a conservation easement.

Save USF Forest Preserve filed to become an official nonprofit organization on Monday.

Since 2012, I’ve been a voice on public radio stations across Florida - in Miami, Fort Myers, and now Tampa.