The two finalists for USF president state their cases to the search committee
The two candidates were thoroughly questioned as they offered different visions for the future of USF.
The University of South Florida could soon end its second presidential search in three years.
Eighteen people submitted formal applications, and the Search Committee heard from the two finalists — interim President Rhea Law and retired U.S. Army Lt. General and educator Jeffrey Talley — Friday.
Both have taken unusual paths up to this point, with Law stating that she would not apply for the permanent position when she was named interim president in July 2021 following Steven Currall's resignation, only to change her mind recently.
Earlier this week, Talley expressed concern over the hiring process and considered withdrawing his application before changing his mind.
Talley was questioned first by the panel of local business leaders, USF Board members, faculty representatives, and students. His interview lasted about 75 minutes.
Of the many points Talley brought up, his statement on the University’s marketing strategy was perhaps the most notable.
“(USF) is not generally identified, in my view, as a national university from a perception branding perspective,” said Talley.
“If you’re really going to hit some of the metrics that you need to hit, to get to some of the goals that you have aligned in your Strategic Plan, you’ve got to have a national brand.”
Some of the specific metrics he mentioned include getting USF into U.S. News and World Report’s top 75 U.S. universities and top 25 public universities — USF is currently#103 overall & #43 among public universities — as well as raising the four year graduation rate above 90%. It’s currently at 64%.
Talley also praised the "One USF" consolidation plan for reducing redundancies, but feels that the St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee campuses need to identify what they're going to be known for and figure out ways not to compete with each other.
And the former chief of the U.S. Army Reserve spoke about not just his 35 years in the military, but also his experiences as a teacher and department chair at a variety of schools, including Notre Dame, Harvard, and University of Southern California.
During questioning, Talley mentioned that he would address one of the biggest issues facing whoever the next president is — finding the funding to build an on-campus football stadium.
Law also mentioned that issue, but much sooner than Talley, highlighting it in the opening statement of her noticeably shorter — 45 minutes — interview.
Perhaps trying to use her experience as interim president to her advantage, Law cited the progress USF has made under her tenure. She promised to continue USF’s upward trajectory if she got the job.
“I think we need continuity, I think we need to move forward and fix some of those things that need fixing, and then really just take off to the next step,” said Law.
Law spoke about how she’s used communication to her advantage in the job, saying she visited the USF St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee campuses in the days immediately after being named interim president.
She also pointed out how she helped address the potential development of the USF Forest Preserve and Claw golf course north of the Tampa campus. Law created an advisory committee that recommended that no development take place there. Law said that decision "puts USF in a better place."
When asked about her priorities if she would be named president, Law said one would be to start a national search for a new provost “immediately after being selected.” Current Provost Ralph Wilcox is retiring after almost 14 years in the job.
Law said having a strong provost is important as she's not an academic, she's a business person “who loves USF.” Law, a lawyer by trade, was a founding member of the USF Board of Trustees, its first and only female chairperson, and an alum.
After the interviews concluded, the committee held a brief discussion in which they reflected on the candidates, with both receiving praise.
Derrick Brooks, an Executive Vice President with the Vinik Sports Group and former Tampa Bay Buccaneer, said he was very “impressed” with Talley’s resume and experience.
Members also praised Law for her “appreciation and love for the University,” with Jose Valiente, Chair of the USF Foundation, calling her a “known commodity” who would not have to go through a transition period.
“When it comes to Rhea, she is a proven leader,” said Valiente. “We haven’t skipped a beat, and I would hate for that to stop while somebody else has to learn [everything].”
Seven out of the 11 committee members present voted to send Tally to the next round in the process, while unanimously agreeing to send Law through.
The finalists will next sit down for interviews with the USF Board of Trustees, as well as visit USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee, where similar Q & A sessions will be held for faculty, staff, students, and community members.
Search committee chair Michael Griffin says a decision could be made by the end of the month.
“There’s a (Florida) Board of Governors meeting at the end of March, so that’s where I’m hoping we land,” he said.
He added that he thinks USF will be in good hands, regardless of the decision.
“At the end of the day, wherever this lands, we’re going to be stronger because we’ve got new ideas, we’ve got new folks that are aware of what's going on here, and we’re going to capitalize on that like we always have here at USF,” he said.