‘This will be a difficult time:’ BOT faces high expectations in presidential search

As Interim President Rhea Law and the Board of Trustees begin their search for a new university president, some faculty feel the choice will be difficult with the current climate the university is in. ORACLE PHOTO

Following former USF President Steven Currall’s unexpected resignation July 19, faculty and staff have certain expectations for what they hope his eventual permanent successor will accomplish.

Former Chair of the USF Board of Trustees (BOT) Rhea Law’s appointment was approved by the BOT on Aug. 2 to serve as interim president, with no plans to take on the permanent role. Throughout the year, the BOT and Law will be searching for a replacement for the position alongside search firms and committees which have yet to be selected.

The presidential search committee will be led by BOT Vice Chairperson Mike Griffin, who will begin creating a firm for a full-scale national search to identify Law’s potential successor. 

Alongside Griffin, regional chancellors of the St. Pete and Sarasota-Manatee campuses, Martin Tadlock and Karen Holbrook, Interim Vice President of institutional equity Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman and Chief Human Resources Officer Angela Sklenka will also join the search committee to find USF’s eighth president.

Faculty Senate President Timothy Boaz said the BOT faces a few hurdles within the presidential search due to the timing of the announcement and current climate of the university.

“We have some challenges to deal with, somewhat more than you might see at other universities,” said Boaz. “We’re still evolving in consolidation, and we’ve just gone through extensive review of our budget in addition to the pandemic.”

Due to these factors, Boaz said the board will be searching for a person who can deal with these added challenges on top of the expected responsibilities of a university president. 

“We have pretty high aspirations [for the eventual president] at USF,” said Boaz. “We need a new president who has proven experience in higher education and is familiar with what it takes to be in those positions and understands the infrastructure of the university.”

Faculty, such as professor of Russian studies Victor Peppard, want the new president to resist pressures from the state government to ease up on COVID-19 policies and guidelines, as well as facilitate more transparent discussions between faculty and USF administration regarding these changes.

“All over the country, universities and colleges are mandating, not suggesting, vaccines and masks,” said Peppard. “This is a very serious situation. [The delta variant] is so transmissible and there’s no reason why we should be exposed to it at this level when we have already proven remote learning to be a viable alternative.”

For Peppard, the president should also be someone with a strong will and who’s aided by science, health and safety guidelines.

“The [COVID-19] guidelines that we have right now are certainly not adequate,” said Peppard. “This is a major crisis that requires more action than what we currently have.”

The main priority of continuing USF’s climb up the college rankings should be placed on hold until the current situation regarding COVID-19 guidelines is adequately solved, according to Peppard. 

Kevin Hawley, instructor in the Zimmerman School of Advertising and Mass Communications, similarly stated his belief that this period of presidential shifting will be a challenging one for the university.

Law’s presidential introduction video stated she’s focused on retaining the “upward momentum” of the university, which Hawley believes is a good endeavor. However, he also feels Law will have to do some “damage control” as a short-term goal to repair the reputation of the university to the USF community as well as politicians in Tallahassee.

“I think this will be a difficult time,” said Hawley. “The last president was hired after a high-profile national search, and he would be known as the guy to continue our momentum and upward trajectory, and he didn’t last two years.”

While Currall’s official resignation announcement claimed the reasoning behind his decision was due to health reasons and to spend more time with his family, Hawley said Currall’s short tenure might make any potential replacements wary.

“We had the best candidate pool we were going to get when Currall was hired,” said Hawley. “We might not get the same kind of qualified people this time around.

“It says something about the position, that this highly qualified person was in the role for only two years. I think that Interim President Law is going to have to do some kind of autopsy on what exactly happened that may have led to his resignation.”

Peppard said he thinks the new president should negotiate with the Board of Governors, as he believes it isn’t giving Florida universities, including USF, enough autonomy on how to deliver instruction in the face of the delta variant, which has caused cases in Florida to be at an all-time high.

“I believe a president has to make some potentially unpopular decisions when they see what they’re being told to do is fundamentally wrong and potentially dangerous,” said Peppard. “That’s what leadership is about.”

With pandemic guidelines, budget cuts and consolidation efforts to worry about, Boaz said it will take a special person to handle USF’s current issues while maintaining enthusiasm for USF’s future.

“I think we have to do a very good job with this search and make a good, solid hire to continue on the trajectory we want to be on,” said Boaz. “Every presidential search is important, but this one feels even more so.”