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Law appointed as next university president

President-elect Rhea Law awaits confirmation by the Florida Board of Governors. ORACLE PHOTO/ALEXANDRA URBAN

Rhea Law was appointed as USF’s eighth president by the Board of Trustees (BOT) on Tuesday following interviews with the finalists — Law and retired U.S. Army Lt. General Jeffrey Talley.

The president-elect received support across the board and a unanimous vote. Presidential Search Committee Chair Mike Griffin said he believes Law is the “right leader at the right time in our trajectory” due to her passion for the job and getting things done.

“She’s going to have no downtime,” he said. “As we know, her need for speed is well documented. She’s been on planes that I would not even think about … But the pedal to the metal I expect to continue under her leadership.

“I cannot think of a better leader anywhere in America than Rhea to lead us forward. So to say that I’m excited about this moment is an understatement. But Rhea Law, I believe, deserves to be our next president and candidly has earned the opportunity through her transformative work in this world for the last seven and a half months.”

Law said she is excited about the future of the university, because of how much it has changed since its inception and how much room it has to continue to grow.

“We’re not just an educational institution,” she said. “We provide experiences, but we provide solutions for governments for nations and beyond. We’re going to find ourselves in a position where we’re going to be the place that people look to when they’re trying to solve the problem that’s going to happen 20 years from now and that, to me, is exciting.”

Managing partner of SP&A Executive Alberto Pimentel reviewed community comments on the candidates, and many described Law as passionate about the university.

“There were large discussions, especially with talking to individuals who are currently working with her about the transformation, the organization USF has undergone under her leadership, and how things that were in the back burner have now been placed on the front burner,” he said.

“But she has managed to lead and achieve success in that very, very short period of time. The success ranges from improving morale to looking at some of the structural changes that were necessary. She didn’t behave as an interim … that she actually behaved as the president.”

Similar sentiments were expressed by the board, such as Faculty Senate President Timothy Boaz who said, while he was skeptical about Law when she first stepped into the interim position, working with her has shown him she is the right leader for the university.

“She is a persuasive person, and someone who really does what she says is her goal in terms of how to be an effective president,” he said. “She has been absolutely terrific in terms of facilitating communication and collaboration among various constituents of the university and I think it would be safe to say that it’s almost palpable in terms of the impact this has had on the climate and environment at the university.”

Pimentel said while a lack of an academic background has been of concern to some community members, “her ability to identify talented people to surround herself with who do have the level of expertise necessary” will benefit her moving forward in the position.

Law said she has relied heavily on Provost Ralph Wilcox, who announced his retirement in November, and a search will need to begin soon to find his successor.

“I think a partnership between myself and a very strong academic is going to propel this university forward,” she said. “I want them to be so excited about what we do here. And the trajectory we have. And the momentum and the passion of the people that I’ve seen throughout this university, that they want to come here and take us there.”

Her career has been focused in law as she has held positions such as CEO and chair of the board of law firm Fowler White Boggs. Law said overseeing a law firm is more similar to presiding over a university than one may think.

“You’re dealing with independent, very bright, accomplished people,” she said. “That is certainly true at a law firm as well as a university.

“It is important to communicate, to collaborate, and then to empower your people to go out and do what’s necessary to accomplish the goals that you’ve set out for yourself.”

Law was welcomed back into the room with a standing ovation and applause after being appointed. She grew emotional while thanking the board and community. ORACLE PHOTO/ALEXANDRA URBAN

At USF, Law was one of the BOT’s founding members as well as its vice chair for five years. She has also played a role in choosing the last two presidents as part of the Presidential Search Advisory Committee.

Her relationship with the university and the community was a deciding factor for BOT Chair Will Weatherford, who recommended her for the interim position in July.

“It’s hard to find anyone that cares as much, who loves this university as much as Rhea Law,” he said. “And that passion, that desire to see your work and the fruits of your labor go toward something that you love is very hard to calculate. And we’ve seen it, as a non academic we see someone who came in with a passion and a love for this institution.”

Building an on-campus stadium is one of the most popular initiatives Law has involved herself with. She told the board it is a “bold move,” but she believes it was about time the motion was moved.

“I am so excited about the fact that this board put a stake in the ground and said it’s time, it’s time that we come of age,” Law said. “It’s time that we have a stadium on our campus that our students can access. That we can create as a gathering place to get, not only our students on campus, but our alums that are coming from all over the place.

“It is true that athletics is kind of the front door to the university.”

Law’s efforts in the project included naming a planning committee who recommended a location, and will determine design, financing and other aspects of the stadium. She said once the stadium is complete, it will help the university create a stronger balance between academics and athletics.

“There was concern in some pockets of the university that somehow we will be transferring money from academic endeavors over to athletics, and that is not the intent at all,” Law said. “The intent is we’re going to bring the entire university up together and athletics is going to help us get our message out.”

Law had initially intended to not apply for the permanent position and would instead create a glide path for whoever stepped into the position. However, she said once she became interim, she saw the opportunities and challenges she had to deal with and became focused on moving the university in the right trajectory.

“I’m really excited about the opportunities and as I said, even those things that look like challenges, they turn into opportunities because they create change,” she said.