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USF, Tampa Bay Area React To President Currall

Mar 27, 2019

When Steven Currall takes over for the retiring Judy Genshaft as president of the University of South Florida in July, he’ll be stepping into a school in transition.

In addition to the consolidation and re-accreditation of the three campuses, there are concerns about USF’s preeminent status, state funding and oversight, and the dozens of other issues a university president has to worry about.

Those issues are on the mind of many people reacting to the USF Board of Trustees’ selection of the provost and vice president for academic affairs at Southern Methodist University in Texas March 22.

One of the most glowing endorsements – perhaps not surprisingly – came from Genshaft herself.

"He has all of the experience both with private academic experience and public academic experience, fund-raising, research, the whole profile is great, and he's got enthusiasm for the next era," she said.

Student leaders also weighed in.

"I really liked his points on diversity and inclusion and his past work with women in business, as well as sustainability and the global climate. I thought that was great,” said junior Britney Deas, the student body president-elect for the Tampa campus. “(Students want) somebody who’s approachable, somebody who’s just as friendly as President Genshaft. Students want someone who’s personable – I definitely see that in (Currall).”

As the current Tampa student body president, senior Moneer Kheireddine is also one of the trustees who was tasked with picking a new university leader. Originally, he leaned towards another finalist, Debasish "Deba" Dutta, former Chancellor at Rutgers University – New Brunswick, but voted for Currall when the formal vote came.

Kheireddine said he was keeping his classmates' wishes in mind when he made his decision.

"A lot of the students that I've spoken to, especially some of the leaders on campus, have really wanted someone who's a culture-setter, someone who's really going to push the fold and really  try to, not just  engrain themselves as a president, but engrain themselves as a member of this community,” he said.

One of the biggest challenges facing Currall is the ongoing consolidation and re-accreditation of the three USF campuses. That's weighing on the minds of faculty at USF Sarasota-Manatee and USF St. Petersburg.

History professor Ray Arsenault is president of the USFSP Faculty Senate.

“It was a bit of a ‘dark search’ – not many of us knew a lot of what was going on, but from what I know…(Currall) has an amazing record and I think many of us were certainly hopeful that the board would select a true academic, somebody with real academic distinction,” he said. “He certainly seems to meet that criteria…I’m very pleased at this point.”

But Arsenault is also hoping that Currall respects the things that make USFSP unique: community engagement, first-rate scholarship and small class size.

"We've obviously been very concerned that we're going to be reduced to an instructional site, which we see as catastrophic for us. At the very least, we want to be a branch campus where we have some control over our own destiny and we're perfectly happy to be part of a larger, preeminent university," said Arsenault.

Reaction on social media was more mixed.

Mark Sharpe is executive director of the Tampa Innovation Partnership, an economic development group that focuses on the area in and around the Tampa campus. He voiced excitement on Twitter about Currall’s history of supporting local businesses and university entrepreneurship.

But others were more guarded – many current students and alumni spoke about issues not covered during the week of interviews with the presidential finalists, including an on-campus football stadium – quite a few people want one – and USF’s new logo – which most who spoke up want to get rid of.

One of the most interesting comments online immediately after the selection came from St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, who tweeted his hope that Currall is “always honest in his dealings as it relates to our city.”

The mayor expounded on that idea this week, saying he felt Genshaft and her administration have not been transparent about what the consolidation process will mean to USF St. Pete.

"Speaking candidly, I certainly didn't feel that President Genshaft was honest and straight up with us at all, that was incredibly disappointing because we had always viewed ourselves as a partner,” he said.

Kriseman added that he looks forward to meeting with Currall, who he hopes will come in with an open mind.

“The sooner he’s able to get out and meet the communities, the better he’ll be able to form his own opinions as opposed to being pre-disposed to things that are said to him by current leadership,” he said.

Currall is scheduled to meet Thursday with the Florida Board of Governors, who will vote whether or not to approve him as USF’s seventh president.