Deba Dutta, Jeffrey Vitter, Wanda Blanchett and Steven Currall each took part in 45-minute "campus conversations" at USF in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota, where they faced questions drawn from ideas submitted in advance by faculty, staff, students and the community.
And while the same questions and topics were asked at each campus, USF officials said the candidates were free to adapt their responses to be more campus-specific.
Multiple questions focused on the university’s upcoming consolidation and re-accreditation of the three campuses. While the populations of USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee are worried about losing their unique identities – a two-word phrase all of the candidates sprinkled liberally throughout their answers Thursday – many on USF Tampa are concerned about losing the preeminent status the university struggled for years to attain.
Under a consolidated accreditation, the full USF System would fall short of some preeminence targets that USF Tampa currently reaches on its own. Recognizing that, the candidates spoke of the importance of doing what it takes to maintain the status.
At USF St. Petersburg Thursday, former University of Mississippi Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter was the first to speak.
He said the focus of consolidation should be about moving things forward and making all students successful as opposed to "managing" the process.
"When you have one university, you can do things more seamlessly than you can with multiple campuses," he told Debbie Sembler, a former USF Trustee and former chair of the USFSP Campus Board who is also a member of the Presidential Search Committee.
Up next was Wanda Blanchett, interim provost of Rutgers University - New Brunswick.
Having seen consolidation of operations there, Blanchett said she understands the “anxiety, fear and trepidation” tied to the process. She encouraged whoever the next president is to visit USFSP and USFSM often.
“I think part of (the job) has to be getting to know those communities, working in very close collaboration with the chancellors…and also building cohesion, trust and respect, and maintaining what is unique about each of the campuses, while also pulling it all together to do something very unique and powerful that couldn’t be done by the sum of the parts,” she said.
Blanchett was followed by the other candidate from Rutgers – New Brunswick, former Chancellor Debasish “Deba” Dutta.
Before joining Rutgers, Dutta served as Provost at his alma mater, Purdue University, where he added another title – that of “MOM,” which stood for “Manager of Mergers.”
He said he was given that name because he oversaw the unification of two of Purdue’s northwest Indiana campuses, as well as the university’s purchase of the for-profit Kaplan University Online. And like a mom, he had to play referee when disputes arose between the two sides.
“My strategy always was – and it worked – wherever we have to resolve these things, first and foremost, ask the question: ‘What is good for the students?’” he said. “It makes a very big difference, faculty are important, absolutely, (but) it is about the students, that is why we exist, that is our job.”
The last candidate to be heard in St. Pete was Steven Currall, the Provost of Southern Methodist University.
A day after wrapping up his interview with the Presidential Search Committee by telling them, “I want this job,” Currall introduced himself in a different manner than the other candidates – by standing on the floor among the audience rather than from the stage.
“I’m a professor at heart, I like lecturing,” he said.
Once he sat down to answer questions, he said that if he was chosen, he’d immediately want to visit all three campuses to “learn and listen.”
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve been listening a lot but not really drawing any conclusions yet about what exactly is the synergy among the three campuses,” said Currall. “I think it’s wise to listen first, to understand the facts, what is the nature of these campuses and their vision, and go through a process of collecting evidence and data and understanding before reaching any conclusions.”
Members of the USF St. Petersburg community watched the proceedings closely, with a number of people attending all four conversations.
Regional Chancellor Martin Tadlock also took the candidates on a golf cart tour of the campus. He said he understands people’s concerns about a change in leadership occurring during the consolidation process, but he’s trying to remain optimistic.
“There’s a lot of questions about it of course, because there’s still some unanswered questions about what things will be in the end, but I think it’s going to be an opportunity for someone to come in and pick up where things are and move it forward to completion,” he said.
And student body president, senior Kaeden Kelso, said the classmates he’s talked to are hoping the new president will take their concerns about consolidation seriously.
“It’s (about) preserving the unique identity we have here at USF St. Pete, within the downtown St. Petersburg area, our connection to the arts, our connection just to the community as a whole, and making sure that our next president, whoever that may be, really embraces our identity as a regional campus,” said Kelso.
“We are at a critical stage,” said Sridhar Sundaram, the dean of the USFSP Kate Tiedemann College of Business. “The ability to have their opinions and the framework that (the candidates) bring to us, that’s going to be important for our next stage.
“And specifically for USF St. Pete and the Kate Tiedemann College of Business, hearing about how they understand the importance of the community and what’s specific and special about the various communities that we bring in, I think that’s what I was looking for from each of the candidates.”
The finalists each have one more interview with the USF Board of Trustees Friday on the Tampa campus. Trustees are expected to vote on a new President in the afternoon.
Contract negotiations would then take place and the choice would need to be approved by the State University System Board of Governors when they meet in Tallahassee next week.
Current President Judy Genshaft is retiring effective July 1 after 19 years leading USF.