Looking ahead: Provost Wilcox’s aspirations for USF’s future

Provost Ralph Wilcox is the longest-serving provost in the State University System, with his tenure at USF lasting 15 years. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

Provost Ralph Wilcox has dedicated his life to academia for more than 40 years, and when he first chose his career path in the education field, he did not expect he would one day be leading a university.

“When I started going down this road in higher education, I never planned to be a provost of a top-tier public research university, but I like to think that I’ve listened and learned from a lot of mentors along the way that saw something in my ability to lead,” Wilcox said. 

Considered the longest-serving provost in the State University System with a 15-year tenure, Wilcox announced Nov. 8 he will step down from his role next year and dedicate his time and expertise to teaching and spending time with his family.

“Your family and your loved ones are incredibly important,” Wilcox said. “Much of my success could never have happened without the support of family. So now, I’ve got grandchildren in my life. They don’t quite understand how they can’t spend time with grandpa just when they want to.”

The decision, according to Wilcox, was also attributed to good timing as the university conducts a nationwide search to find its eighth president. 

“I think it’s good for the university and it’s good for me,” he said. “My time at the university has always been guided by the best interests of the university and decision making, so I think the timing is right.

“With the new president coming in, and the new strategic plan on the horizon, I think it makes a lot of sense for me to complete the full circle and finish what I started. That was being a professor, teaching and mentoring students which is something I’ve always had a passion for and reengaging with my research and scholarship.”

Wilcox has served as provost and executive vice president of academic affairs since January 2008. Prior to taking on that role, he was a professor and served as vice provost from 2003-07.

He started his journey at USF as a fellow on the American Council on Education from 2001-02, a higher education leadership development program focusing on “Leadership for Change.” As a fellow, he worked directly with the university president and provost on student retention and a campus and communitywide strategic planning process. 

Wilcox then further developed his career at the St. Pete campus as interim vice president and campus executive officer from 2002-03. As a professor, he was awarded tenure at USF in 2002.

During his time as provost, Wilcox played a role in increasing the academic profile of incoming freshmen from a 3.86 GPA in fall 2011 to a 4.18 in fall 2021, as well as the four-year first-time-in-college graduation rate from 36% between 2007-11 to 62% for the 2017-21 cohort.

Faculty Senate President Timothy Boaz said Wilcox’s accomplishments during his time as provost became one of USF’s points of pride, and his respect of the role of faculty was well-recognized.

“I feel like as Faculty Senate president, I’ve had a great relationship with Provost Wilcox. We haven’t always agreed on everything, but he’s somebody who really was ready to have a conversation with me and with the faculty about issues of concern, and I think he listened to what we had to say and took it seriously,” Boaz said. 

A scholar at heart, Wilcox’s expertise focuses on cultural studies and globalization. He earned his bachelor’s degree from St. Luke’s College of the University of Exeter, his master’s degree from Washington State University and his Ph.D. from the University of Alberta.

While he plans to return to his teaching roots next year, he is still unsure which college or area he will focus on as a professor.

“I think that’s going to be in conversation with the next president and provost,” Wilcox said. “I’m going to do my best to serve the needs of the [university] wherever they need me, and that will include teaching at the undergraduate and graduate level, mentoring students and again, continuing my research. 

“I’m going to keep an open mind on that and see where I can best meet the needs of the university and our students.”

The news of Wilcox stepping down came during a transitional period in the university’s leadership team, with an ongoing presidential search as well as the new appointment of USF’s interim vice president of research. Wilcox said he will stay in his role until next year, and his last day will depend on when a new president is chosen.

“I’m going to work with our next president to transition the programs that she or he selects to be their next chief academic officer, and then I’m going to get out of the way,” Wilcox said. “I’m staying until such time that those appointments have been made so there’s a seamless handoff, if you will, of academic leadership.”

While the news took United Faculty of Florida USF Chapter Secretary Greg McColm by surprise, he said it’s expected as the university “transitions to a new place.”

“I suspect that since we’re at the end of semester, that the reality is really going to take a little while, like a month or so before people really internalize what the situation is,” he said. 

“It’s very different from President [Steven Currall’s] departure. He left all at once, where as the provost is remaining for a transitional period of some kind, so it’s not that big of a surprise. It’s not that much of a shock, but it’s happening on top of everything else. It’s another shoe falling.”

The timeline of Wilcox’s decision to step down is part of a standard operating procedure when a university is hiring a new president, according to McColm. He said it’s ideal for the next president to oversee the search for a new provost as they will be directly working together.

“If the provost is departing, you certainly would not want to hire the president and then say, ‘Oh, by the way, we’ve already decided on the provost.’ Some presidents would refuse to take the job under those circumstances,” McColm said. 

Boaz said Wilcox’s decision to step down will allow the next administration to choose someone with aligned goals and aspirations.

“When a new president comes in, often they bring in a new provost and that’s because they have someone in mind that they think will implement the sorts of policies that they feel need to be put in place or emphasized,” Boaz said.

As Wilcox will soon become part of the university’s faculty community, Boaz said he looks forward to seeing the contributions he will make in his new role. 

“I really valued that relationship quite a lot,” Boaz said. “Now, he’ll be a member of the faculty after he steps down, so maybe he’ll be joining us in the Faculty Senate, and then we can look forward to him continuing to make a contribution.”

Wilcox is not yet done contributing to the USF community. Whatever direction he takes in his future role, Wilcox said he is excited to see the milestones the university will achieve in the coming years.

“There’s so much more work to do. We have high aspirations,” Wilcox said.

“Now, we have a real opportunity to serve as the catalyst to lift the broader Tampa Bay region from Sarasota to St. Petersburg to Tampa and all communities in between, and we really believe that, together, [we] can do great things.”