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Rhea Law ‘Can’t Say No’ To The Chance Of Serving As USF’s Interim President

A woman in green with a shiny necklace and glasses stands in front of foam noise reducers.
Mark Schreiner
WUSF Public Media
Rhea Law was one of the founding USF trustees and spent five years as vice chairperson before serving four years as the first — and only — female chair.

The former chair of the University of South Florida's Board of Trustees is slated to become interim president Monday.

Steven Currall will be stepping down as the President of the University of South Florida Monday after two years in the position.

Rhea Law, a USF graduate and former chair of the university’s board of trustees, was recommended to become the interim president. The board will vote on the recommendation Monday. If approved, it will go to the Florida Board of Governors on Aug. 31.

She will serve until a permanent replacement is found. Searches typically take between six months and one year.

Law spoke to WUSF ahead of Monday's meeting.

Who asked you to serve as interim president and why did you say yes?

I got a call from Will Weatherford, who's the Chair of the Board of Trustees, and he was telling me that they were looking for an interim president. And I immediately started thinking about candidates that might be appropriate. And he said, ‘Oh, no, no, that's not what I'm calling you about. I'm calling you because you're at the top of my list.’

And it was a big surprise. And I was honored, but I really had to think about that. And so he said ‘Well I’ll call you back tomorrow.’ So I had a whole day to think about it. And, next day, he called back and he said ‘okay will you do it?’ and I said yes.

What was going through your head as you mulled over that decision?

I was thinking about whether I was the best choice for the university. USF has such momentum right now that it's really important that we keep that up both internally and externally to the university. And I was just thinking about what would be the best for the university to move forward? What kind of skill sets, what kind of personality? And I did talk to a lot of people about that. And I came away thinking if I can help, if I can assist at this time, I can't say no.

So if you're confirmed on Monday, what do you hope to accomplish in your tenure?

Well, first, I'm going to listen to all of the stakeholders. And I've already reached out to the deans, to the faculty, to students, to a number of people in the regional campuses. I need to understand what their goals are and how I can help them effectuate them.

The second thing that's very important is to create a glide path for the new president as they come into this position. So when they come, you know, if there was something that needed to be solved, hopefully we will have solved it by the time they get here, and they'll be able to hit the ground running and just keep up with the momentum that we have in place.

Have you spoken to President Steven Currall or Judy Genshaft about the position?

I have absolutely spoken to both of them. I've spoken to President Currall a lot about the issues that he sees and he's been very helpful in identifying things that need to be done very quickly. And so I'm following up on that. I think that you need to broaden your area of inquiry, and so you need to talk to everybody.

I talked to Betty Castor, she was the president before President Genshaft. So it's being able to listen and to identify the things that are important to the university, and then together those people around you so that you can move forward.

A smiling woman in green sits across from a young man in blue, who is holding a microphone near her while also wearing headphones.
Mark Schreiner

And so I have to ask, are you going to pursue the permanent job?

No, that was one of the things that I talked over with Chairman Weatherford. They're not looking for an interim that is interested in the permanent job. They want to make sure that the interim is focused on making sure that the university is in good hands and ready for the new person to come in and I am not applying for the permanent job.

So then, what would you like to see in the upcoming president?

Well, first, I'd like to see a person who's enthusiastic about coming to the university. They need to really see the potential that USF has and be willing to roll up their sleeves and move forward in helping us achieve those really grandiose goals that we have.

The second thing is, they should be very mindful of the extremely good talent that we have here at the university, and be respectful of our students, our faculty, our administrators, I mean, this is how the university came to this point. And so we want a president who's going to be a partner, and help us achieve those goals.

In some of the previous presidential searches (across the state), people who have thrown their hat into the ring have been from the political sector and not necessarily from the academic sector. So I'm wondering what you say to people who think that that might happen at USF?

Well, I don't know who's going to apply and it's really hard to tell. As you can tell, I don't have a traditional academic background. But I've been around the university for the majority of my life, not just my professional life, and I am very familiar with what goes on within a university.

In addition to being an environmental and land use attorney, I also am a higher education attorney. So I do understand and have something to offer. So you really need to look at candidates for what they have to offer and whether or not they have the personality, the focus, the understanding, to be helpful in a particular situation.

You graduated from USF — how does it feel to go from being a student to being in this position?

Let me give you a little of my background. I came to the University of South Florida because I was able to go to school at night. And so I would work here in the office of Sponsored Research and then go to school at night. I did that for 10 years. I then left to go to law school and I was still on the research foundation and a couple of other organizations within the university.

And I was asked to come back and be on the search committee, which ultimately resulted in Judy Genshaft being selected. Then they created the Board of Trustees and I was appointed to the Board of Trustees and served as their vice chair for five years and their chair for four years. And I have been chairing the CAMLS, which is a simulation center, for the last 12 years. So I've come full circle, I'm back.

Jacob Wentz is the inaugural WUSF Rush Family Radio News intern for the summer of 2021.
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