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USF names Rhea Law as its new president

A woman stands between two men. They're standing behind microphones and in front of a green background.
Bailey LeFever
WUSF Public Media
Rhea Law, center, was named the University of South Florida President Tuesday in Tampa. She was praised by Board of Trustees vice chair Michael Griffin, left, and chair Will Weatherford, right.

Rhea Law, a Tampa lawyer who previously served as chair of USF's Board of Trustees, is the first alum to lead the university.

For the first time, the University of South Florida will have an alum at its helm.

The USF Board of Trustees unanimously picked Rhea Law as its eighth president in Tampa Tuesday — three years to the day after president Steve Currall was selected for the job.

Throughout their deliberations, trustees noted Law's success as interim president, a position she has held since August 2021. They also applauded her deep connections with the community, potential funding victories during the 2022 legislative session, and other work on key issues, including progress on an on-campus football stadium.

Board Vice Chair Michael Griffin expressed his support.

"Just like USF, Rhea is scrappy,” he said. “A lot of folks may count us out, may have counted her out. Rhea Law is someone that I believe in my heart, believe in my mind, believe in my gut that she has the passion to carry this university forward. She is the right leader at the right time in our trajectory."

Law said accepting this role is an honor, and that the presidency “is more than a job to her.”

"It is a calling to give back to this community that has given so much to me. When we link arms and work together, anything is possible,” she said.

"I look forward to working with each and every one of you and, gosh, this is more emotional than I thought," she added in a short ceremony following the vote.

Among Law’s first priorities are setting up a national search to choose a provost to replace Ralph Wilcox, who is retiring from the job, and bringing the university’s U.S. News and World Report ranking into the top 25 of public universities. USF came in at a tie for #46 in the latest rankings.

A large part of those grades will be decided by USF’s ability to recruit and retain faculty. Law said the university needs to make sure there’s enough funding to support them and their research. She intends to find ways for the university to increase its research and produce alternative funding streams.

Over the past several months, Law has dealt with budgetary issues and said she plans to keep focus on the area. She said money will likely be trimmed from some sectors to reallocate to programs and areas that will help USF achieve its strategic goals.

Read more: The two finalists for USF president state their cases to the search committee

Law initially said she would not apply for the permanent role when she was appointed in 2021. But Board Chair Will Weatherford told members Tuesday, that’s because when he first asked Law to step in as interim president, he told her she could not. Weatherford said he thought it would make the search more difficult.

But in December, he reconsidered after witnessing Law’s impact on the university and told her she would have his support if she applied. Law entered the race in February.

"None of us came into this anticipating this would be the end result," Weatherford added. "We know she can do the job because she's been doing it, and doing it at a very high level. You can't manufacture a passion for the University of South Florida, and it's hard to find anyone that cares as much or loves this university as much as Rhea Law."

Though the board voted for Law unanimously, there was some discussion of Law's lack of experience in academia compared with the other finalist, retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. and educator Jeffrey Talley, who has taught and held leadership positions at a number of schools, including Notre Dame, Johns Hopkins, and Harvard.

Throughout the interview process, Talley expounded on how he could bring his experience as a faculty member to the job.

Trustee Timothy Boaz noted that Law does not have experience as a professor, which would be helpful for someone overseeing faculty. But he added that he has found Law to be a convincing and collaborative leader and her impact is palpable.

Trustee Rick Piccolo also reminded members that he was a part of the search for the last president, Steve Currall. He noted that even with Currall's academic pedigree, the choice did not work out as they hoped.

"We've had seven months to test drive the president, who faced a lot of issues when she came here. Consolidation was still very much in the air, COVID, budgetary issues, and I think issues with communication with faculty and students and she seems to have been addressing that pretty aggressively," said Piccolo. "In my mind, I think Rhea is the right person at this time."

The appointment is pending confirmation by the Florida Board of Governors at their meeting March 29-30 at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.

Bailey LeFever is a reporter focusing on education and health in the greater Tampa Bay region.
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