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Ahead Of Inauguration, Steven Currall Keeps An Eye On USF's Future

Nov 13, 2019

University of South Florida President Steven Currall is looking forward to his inauguration Thursday, as much for the USF community as for himself.

“It's going to be a great day, it's going to be a lot of fun, we're going to have lots of friends and family in town,” said Currall. “And we really hope that it's a great milestone for the university community – in many ways, the inauguration is not about me, it's really about a transition in leadership and how the university community can continue to think about the future.”

Currall’s focus on the future was a major topic when he sat down for an interview with WUSF’s University Beat just days before his inauguration.

Such events normally happen months into a new president’s tenure to give them time to focus on the transition in leadership.

In Currall’s case, he’s spent a lot of his time since formally taking the job July 1 learning about USF and its place in both the Tampa Bay area and Florida.

“My wife (educator Cheyenne Currall) and I have been very warmly welcomed by the Tampa Bay community,” he said. “I've been reassured by the welcoming tone of the interaction with community members and the university community, so that that's been great.”

“The process of becoming president of the University of South Florida involves getting familiarized with the state and state politics, so I've actually been to Tallahassee four times since I arrived, and so I'm learning a lot about Florida state politics,” continued Currall. “I really enjoy speaking to Gov. Ron DeSantis, I enjoy spending time with legislators and getting to know them – I find them fascinating folks.”

Those burgeoning relationships are coming in handy as Currall, 60, continues to help USF try to meet a state-mandated requirement made before he was chosen as its seventh president: Consolidate the separate accreditations for its three campuses under one umbrella by July 1, 2020.

“I think it's a great strategic move for the future of our university. It's going to allow us to have more permeable boundaries across the three campuses, which we believe is going to benefit our students. It's also going to result in more interdisciplinary collaboration among our faculty and we feel like we're going to be even more engaged with the Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Sarasota-Manatee communities,” he said.

LEARN MORE: See WUSF News' ongoing coverage of the USF consolidation process

Currall acknowledges there’s an improvement in the response to the updated plan, which has been dubbed as Consolidation 2.0. The initial plan he presented to the Board of Trustees in September drew criticism from faculty and students at USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee, as well as lawmakers, for giving too much control to leaders on the Tampa campus.

“We've really been very committed to listening and engaging with the communities on all three campuses, and I think that those communities now are seeing that that we have listened carefully,” he said. “The original plan that we put out was just a preliminary version, a skeleton. So we've now put some more meat on the bones, if you will, and I think we've got a good balance of leadership in Tampa and St. Pete and Sarasota in a way that balances the organizational structure in a way that really is going to benefit our students and benefit faculty and staff and the alumni communities.”

Engaging all three campuses also remains a priority for Currall, as his plans to visit all colleges and departments as part of a “listening tour” continue.

“I’ve spent most of my time listening about consolidation so far, that's kept me pretty busy. But we have two college visits scheduled by the end of the semester –those will be one-day events where I will go to the college and meet with faculty and staff and students and just learn more about the university. So in many ways, consolidation has been a great ‘quick course’ on the university.”

READ MORE: See WUSF's coverage of USF President Steven Currall

Currall was chosen in March by USF Trustees to succeed longtime President Judy Genshaft after a lengthy career in higher education, most recently as Provost/Vice President for Academic Affairs at Southern Methodist University in Texas.

USF President Steven Currall speaks to research faculty in a classroom on the Tampa campus on his first official day on the job, July 1, 2019. CREDIT MARK SCHREINER/WUSF PUBLIC MEDIA

Since then, he’s kept at least one eye on the future of USF.

“There's been a lot of time spent on consolidation – that’s something that had to be addressed in the short run,” said Currall. “And so I'll be recalibrating and rebalancing how I allocate my time and effort and I'll be moving into phases where I'm spending more time externally in terms of fundraising, more time engaging with community stakeholders and thinking and getting their input on the future of the university.

“So the evolution of this role will move over, say the next nine months, into a more externally facing role and that really is the core of the president's job,” he said.

One role he’s also taking seriously is having the ultimate say over USF Athletics – particularly the future of embattled head football coach Charlie Strong, who is facing much public criticism for a wildly inconsistent season that sees the Bulls with a 4-5 record.

“We're very committed to our student-athletes, and we're very committed to football,” said Currall. “We have a terrific athletic director in Michael Kelly, and he and I speak regularly about football, about lots of different kinds of sports. And so I support Michael, he's got great judgment, and we're just proceeding in a thoughtful way and thinking about the future of the football team, coaching staff and in fact, all of the intercollegiate athletics at USF.”

Currall added that he recently attended a meeting of the American Athletic Conference President's Council, where the NCAA’s Oct. 29 decision to allow student-athletes to receive compensation was a major topic of discussion.

“I'm frankly worried about it – I'm worried about the possible role of agents working with young people in high-stakes commercial considerations. It's hard for anybody, much less someone 18 to 22 years old, to understand and to grasp the complexity of commercial contracts,” he said. “And so I'm concerned about that and about the possible negative effect on intercollegiate athletics.”

In the meantime, Currall continues moving forward with future plans for USF, including a new task force he recently unveiled made up of faculty, students and other stakeholders. Their mission – producing what he calls “USF’s Principles of Community.”

“As we think about the future of the University of South Florida, I wanted the campus community to have an opportunity early on in the process to reflect on how we make decisions, how we treat each other with respect, how are we inclusive, how we honor perspectives that are different from our own,” he said.

"When I deliver my inauguration remarks, I'll be talking a lot about what makes University of South Florida unique, and I'll use that as an opportunity to talk about the future,"

“And in my experience at other universities, I've seen a great benefit in having the campus community coalesce around a short list of principles about how we integrate and interact with each other and how we deliberate about big topics like the strategic plan for the university and so on.

“‘Principles of Community’ is very focused on process, how do we deliberate with each other and then move into what I prefer to call the strategic renewal process where we think about the future. Think about what's unique about USF, what are our strengths, what are areas of improvement?” he continued.

“So that'll happen over the next 12 to 18 months but I believe that this exercise will lay a strong foundation for how we think about the future of the university,” said Currall.

And the future will be on Currall’s mind when he speaks at his formal investiture ceremony at 2 p.m. Thursday in the Yuengling Center on USF’s Tampa campus.

“When I deliver my remarks (at the ceremony), I'll be talking a lot about what makes University of South Florida unique, and I'll use that as an opportunity to talk about the future,” he said. “Some universities have a week-long inauguration and I think that's not necessary. We'll have a great community experience in one day and then we'll get back on back to the job.”

The ceremony will be livestreamed on USF’s homepage at usf.edu.