Friday, July 1, marked the start of a new era for the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, as Christian Hardigree officially began serving as its new leader.
Just three hours into her first day as regional chancellor, Hardigree candidly shared her thoughts with the Catalyst on replacing Dr. Martin Tadlock, the search process and her hopes for USFSP’s future.
Tadlock, the former regional chancellor, earned the respect and admiration of school and community stakeholders during his five years at the helm. Hardigree relayed that she told Tadlock that while unsure of what size he wore, she “knew he was leaving enormous shoes to fill.”
“I think it’s natural to have some angst about meeting the expectations of the community,” said Hardigree. “Particularly when you follow somebody who has been so impactful.”
“It is my true hope that in a few years, people will say, ‘you know what, she’s got some pretty big feet herself.'”
On a macro level, Haridgree hopes to help St. Petersburg students, the consolidated OneUSF university system and the community surrounding the downtown campus achieve new heights.
At a press conference in May, following Hardigree’s selection from a national pool of 56 applicants, the new chancellor said she shared President Rhea Law’s vision of USF gaining admission to the prestigious Association of American Universities (AAU) as a top research institution.
A key project to bolster marine research emanating from USFSP’s waterfront campus is the Environmental and Oceanographic Sciences Research and Teaching facility (EOS). The Legislature allocated $75 million for the $80 million expansive development, but the governor vetoed the funding shortly after Law announced Hardigree would serve as the new regional chancellor.
While one might assume she was disappointed to hear a major project she was selected to oversee was potentially in limbo, Hardigree explained she was excited at what the news meant for her first year on the job.
“I really saw it as an opportunity to kind of get into the weeds, as opposed to inheriting something that maybe is kind of done,” she said. “I was actually excited to be part of the programming and development for the proposal that we’ll be putting forward.”
School and local officials believe the governor will approve funding for the EOS during next year’s legislative session. Hardigree relishes the chance to work with Tom Frazier, dean of the College of Marine Science, and other academic leaders to create a “compelling narrative.”
“As to how this is going to impact our academic mission, our students and the jobs that they get,” she added. “Our ability to provide discovery, innovation and knowledge that is really meaningful, particularly for those in coastal areas – across the world.”
In addition to the university’s plans for the EOS, Hardigree said she would sustain the momentum behind USFSP’s diversity, equity and inclusion programming and continue improving graduation and retention rates. She also wants to ensure the school’s undergraduate offerings are relevant and meaningful for students and the surrounding community.
Hardigree noted enrollment in the Honors College has increased by over 50%, the potential of the new fintech center and how the campus is bringing in new journalism faculty. Hardigree – with an apparent enthusiasm for the road ahead – said, “it’s such a fun and exciting environment to be in.”
She plans to sustain and build upon USFSP’s established momentum and increase its profile “without missing a step.” Not just throughout the state, she added, but nationally and internationally.
Hardigree declined to speculate on any potential changes she might make. Instead, she explained how universities are multidimensional, and how “pulling one string” affects several other areas.
Hardigree came to St. Pete from Denver after serving as the founding dean of Metropolitan State University’s School of Hospitality. She also led the school’s transition to a free-standing institution, implementing a complete curriculum redesign.
After spending the last 20 years in academia, Hardigree said her experience brought an understanding of the interrelation between the many elements in a university. She stated that awareness would influence her decision-making process at USFSP.
“Just that approach of, have we really thought about the impact of decisions,” said Hardigree. “And have we ensured that we’re engaging in the shared governance process to get input from our constituents, both internal and external.
“In support of the journey our students are on, the economic development for our county, our region, our state and nationally, and the elevation of our reputation.”
Hardigree said she was drawn to the community aspect of USFSP, noting its size allows a “concierge approach” not afforded with the “behemoth of processes” required on the Tampa campus, which is home to over 45,000 students.
School leadership, she said, can try new processes and procedures in St. Pete and see if they can scale those up across the entire university system. Smaller classes provide more personalized attention to students, and its downtown location offers unique opportunities for engagement “in ways that are meaningful and relevant” to the surrounding economic development community.
“That was very much a part of the reason I was interested in the campus,” she added. “I think it’s an incredible opportunity to have a small-time feel with the chutzpah of a large institution.”
The selection process, said Hardigree, was very thorough, and she stressed her appreciation for Law and her graciousness. She enjoyed meeting stakeholders from both sides of the bay, using the term “warm” to describe every encounter.
Hardigree believes she made friends and colleagues she could reach out to, even if Law chose someone else to serve as regional chancellor. To Hardigree, “that is a sign of a great search process.”
“You know, three or four people – that I could reach out to and talk about collaborations and things we could do moving forward,” she said. “That’s a win for everybody.”
Hardigree said she will strive for perfection in her new role as USFSP’s leader, “fully understanding that we’re going to miss the bar, frequently.”
“If we can approach things each day like we’re going to do it the best, and if we miss that and we’re just a smidge lower – that’s still really good.”