By later this afternoon, we should know who the next President of the University of South Florida will be.
The four finalists sit down Friday for one last interview with the USF Board of Trustees in Tampa. After that, the board is expected to vote on who will succeed Judy Genshaft.
The candidates already took part in interviews Wednesday with the Presidential Search Committee and Thursday on the three USF campuses.
First up on Friday was former Rutgers – New Brunswick Chancellor Debasish “Deba” Dutta, who opened his interview by saying the next USF President and the direction they put the university on before its 75th anniversary of 2031 will set it on its path for the next 50 years.
He described his leadership style as “leaders know the way, show the way and get to go the way,” and said much of his team at Rutgers came from within. However, he only briefly spoke about why he stepped down as Chancellor there after just over one year before going more in depth later in his interview.
Dutta also shared some interesting thoughts on athletics, saying that student-athletes are "at least double majors" due to their time commitments and should get the kind of education that gives them the opportunities to find jobs when their athletic career ends. He pointed to Brian Lamb, a former USF basketball captain who is now a businessman and chair of the Board of Trustees, as an example of a student-athlete who was prepared for a career outside sports.
On diversity, Dutta cited his experience as Purdue University’s Chief Diversity Officer: "Access and success are two sides of the same coin." And he suggested USF try to recruit a Nobel Prize winner, saying having even one on faculty can increase the recognition of a university.
The board next heard from Jeffrey Vitter, who stepped down as Chancellor at the University of Mississippi, who called the USF Presidency "a dream job." He shared a story of how he and wife were touring campus earlier this week and ran into students who were planning a birthday party for the Bulls mascot, Rocky.
Like he did on Wednesday, Vitter's introduction was very similar to the one he shared with the Presidential Search Committee Wednesday, speaking at length about the circumstances of his departure at Ole Miss. He said he ran into many people at the university who were too entrenched in “old ways” or wanted to do things he wasn’t comfortable with, like hitting back at the NCAA, which investigated the Ole Miss athletic program for six years.
When it comes to the consolidation and re-accreditation of USF’s three campuses, Vitter cited his experience at the University of Kansas, saying the creation of that school’s first-ever university-wide undergraduate curriculum shows he can help bring people and academic programs together.
He also said his work with the University of Mississippi’s board and state lawmakers helped get a bill passed that allowed Ole Miss to partner with area hospitals.
Vitter once again called college athletics the “front porch” of a school that can help draw people in and maintain connections with alumni. In a somewhat surprising moment, he responded to student trustee Moneer Kheireddine’s question about his experience with esports by pointing to Ole Miss’ success with the developing field, saying it's another way to appeal to and attract talented students to a university.
On the subject of diversity, Vitter, who has bachelors in mathematics, changed up his approach from Wednesday, when he used a math formula that had the search committee and virtually everyone in the room trying to remember high school algebra. Today, he had wife, Sharon, hand him a tissue box he admitted taking from their hotel room to demonstrate how cutting people out of college because of wealth removes many from the "contributing group."
Vitter also said that budget cuts at the University of Kansas showed him that "you have to be nimble” when it comes to financial issues at a university, saying he helped identify areas to protect and make stronger, and looked for opportunities to connect with the local and international community to bring in funds.
Rutgers University – New Brunswick interim provost Wanda Blanchett started her presentation to trustees by sharing a personal story of how her parents didn't finish high school but still believed in the power of education.
“I’m here today having a conversation with you in part because of the vision that my parents had for a belief of what education could do and then also as a result of having exceptional educators pour into me at every step of my life,” said Blanchett, who said her goal is to make sure every child and every community has access to a quality education.
She said she decided to apply for the job after seeing what USF wants in its next president and believes she and the university “could do great things together.” Blanchett described her leadership as a “co-constructive” model: one of her strengths is to pull together a team around a vision, develop a plan, find resources and support it.
Blanchett said, during her short time at USF, she saw disparities in the student experiences at the Tampa campus compared to the St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee campuses, adding that the next president will need to make sure that all students have equitable access to a high-quality education no matter what campus they’re on.
“If we can’t meet the needs of students, then universities should close their doors,” she said, also suggesting that university officials should see if lawmakers would “grandfather” USF’s preeminent status until consolidation is complete.
And when asked if she can handle running a university the size of USF, Blanchett spoke about the size and strengths of Rutgers – New Brunswick, saying, as the second-in-command, she supports the chancellor with many of the same issues USF is facing at a “similar level of excellence.”
“We’ve just been doing it longer,” Blanchett said with a smile.
The final candidate was Steven Currall, the Provost for Southern Methodist University in Texas, who began his interview in the same way he did the previous two days – by calling USF "the most promising and auspicious public university" in the country.
He said, as president, he would launch a strategic renewal process to refocus the university’s priorities. He also said probably the biggest job of the new president in the first year would be to meet the deadlines for consolidation and re-accreditation while maintaining preeminent status.
Currall also said research excellence and undergrad excellence can exist alongside one another, and one of USF’s main goals – membership in the Association of American Universities (AAU) is possible while welcoming diversity.
"These things can be done in concert,” said Currall.
Like many of the other candidates, Currall said he would get out across all three campuses on a "listening tour.”
Asked about how he deals with trustees and lawmakers, Currall made an interesting statement, particularly in contrast with some of the other candidates responses.
"I know who my boss is," Currall said, adding that he serves at the pleasure of the Board of Trustees. He pointed out that he currently answers to a 42-member board at SMU.
Moving on to fundraising, Currall said his first job out of college at the age of 23 was in fundraising for Baylor University and he's since worked on a pair of $1 billion-plus campaigns.
Currall also said he had printed out and read the 489-page booklet on USF that the candidates were sent. It showed, as he hit on many of the programs either thriving or developing at the university: academic biomedicine that delivers healthcare alongside research, as well as the nanotechnology and cybersecurity programs. He added that, if hired, he would like to push the convergence of digital technologies with the arts and humanities at USF.
He also said that universities need to recruit the best students earlier, saying there's a program at SMU that targets students as young as high school freshmen.
In response to a trustee’s question about how he’d help USF increase its reputation, Currall replied: “You have a great story to tell and I'd love to help you tell it," adding that he'd go out across the state, country and world to help build the school’s brand.
He wrapped up his interview like he did with the search committee on Wednesday: by calling the USF presidency the kind of job he’d end his career with, and telling them “I want this job.”
The Trustees will vote on the new president at a board meeting at the conclusion of the interviews. That meeting will be available via Webcast.
There are still a few more steps left in the process. Background checks need to be completed on the candidates, contract negotiations need to take place and the Florida Board of Governors will have to approve the selection next week when they meet in Tallahassee.
Genshaft will step down effective July 1, ending a nineteen-year tenure at USF.
This is a developing story and will be updated throughout the day. Also, hear updates on All Things Considered on WUSF 89.7 this afternoon, starting at 4 p.m.