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Inside the selection of USFSP’s new chancellor

Mark Parker

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Christian Hardigree credited her background in hospitality for her service-led approach and said she would ensure she listens in ways that “actively engage opportunities” to propel the entire university system and campus forward. Photo provided.

Following Wednesday’s announcement that University of South Florida President Rhea Law selected Christian Hardigree to lead the St. Petersburg campus, the two held their first public meeting together, officially introducing Hardigree to the community as the next regional chancellor.

Speaking virtually to members of the press and university stakeholders, Hardigree said it was a privilege and an honor to work under Law’s guidance. She also looks forward to collaborating with leadership, faculty, staff and students across the university’s three campuses to achieve the next milestones, including admission to the prestigious Association of American Universities (AAU).

“And to share this experience as we move into our next step,” said Hardigree. “With our goals of being a top-25 institution, and our invitation – hopefully one day – to AAU.”

The AAU includes 65 of the country’s leading research universities. According to its website, its members earn the majority of competitively awarded federal funding for research that improves that nation’s public health, addresses national challenges and bolsters economic strength while educating and training future leaders and innovators.

Law explained that selecting Hardigree from a national pool of 56 applicants followed several months of analysis by a 17-member search committee that included several high-ranking university officials, St. Petersburg business leaders and one USFSP student.

“The cast a very wide net nationally, looking for just the right person to come to St. Petersburg,” said Law. “What I specifically was looking for was someone that can be a true leader, someone that can take this campus and move it to the next step.”

Law noted the university recently received record funding from the state legislature and support from area donors. She added that USF is adopting several new programs and has the opportunity to “boost some of our existing programs to heights that we never dreamed of before.”

Hardigree comes to St. Petersburg from Denver, where she served as the founding dean of Metropolitan State University’s School of Hospitality. At the onset of the meeting, Law credited Hardigree for helping the school transition to a free-standing institution, implementing departmental structures and a strategic plan. She also commended Hardigree’s ability to secure external funding and leading the school’s faculty through a “complete redesign” of the curriculum.

“So, we need someone with an academic background – someone that is capable of putting together curriculum and programming … ” said Law. “I also looked for someone who would fit in with the community, someone who could immediately get involved with the chamber and downtown partnership … and be able to reach out across all of our campuses to benefit from having all of those resources at their fingertips.

“I believe Christian Hardigree is that person.”

When asked about her first priority upon starting the new position July 1, Hardigree said that at the risk of creating a new verb in an academic setting, she planned to “sponge.”

In addition to meeting with USFSP faculty, staff and students, Hardigree said she would also meet with the surrounding community and county and state stakeholders. She said it is a matter of learning and absorbing “as much as humanly possible” to better appreciate the university’s journey to its current place, including moving forward as “One USF.”

“How do we be a good partner for the entire institution?” said Hardigree. “But how do we also highlight the special nature of this vibrant campus?

“How do we make sure that we are being good partners in economic development, as well as relevant educational platforms, whether that’s digital communications or multimedia journalism or political science or psychology?”

Hardigree added that she is particularly excited about USFSP’s sustainability studies, a field the waterfront campus is uniquely suited to research and analyze.

Hardigree credited her background in hospitality for her service-led approach and said she would ensure she listens in ways that “actively engage opportunities” to propel the entire university system and campus forward.

The Regional Chancellor Search Committee presented Law with four finalists to replace the popular Dr. Martin Tadlock, who after five years of leading the campus will return to a teaching role. Following Bjong “Wolf” Yeigh’s withdrawal, that left Melissa Gruys, dean of the Richard T. Doermer School of Business at Purdue University Fort Wayne, Kanika Tomalin, vice president for strategy and chief operating officer at Eckerd College, and Hardigree vying for the campus’s top position.

Tomalin, a fifth-generation St. Petersburg resident and former deputy mayor, was the lone finalist with ties to the city. Many stakeholders expressed their desire for Law to select the known commodity. Law said she asked the committee to provide her with four names rather than one individual.

“So, there was not one person over another; there was a group of four, which I reviewed individually,” said Law. “And then I looked at all of the feedback on each of the individuals, and based on that and my own interviews and due diligence, I believe Chancellor Hardigree is the person that’s going to take us to the next level.”

In March, the USF Board of Trustees named Law the university’s eighth president. She has a legal background rather than in academia, although she spent most of her life around the school and previously held multiple leadership positions. One concern during the interviewing process was her lack of educational experience, and Law stressed she would surround herself with people possessing an extensive academic background.

While Tomalin currently serves an administrative role with Eckerd College, her background includes journalism, business and public administration. Hardigree, who earned her Juris Doctorate from Walter F. George School of Law at Mercer University, has spent the last 20 years in higher education.

“I do not have that background,” said Law. “And that is why it is extremely important that we have very strong people that have those capabilities.

“If we can bring together all of our strengths, we are going to be so much stronger because we have many different points of view, and we’re able to think of the most innovative and direct ways to accomplish the goals that we’ve set for ourselves at the university.”

Hardigree said a sense of community attracted her the most to the St. Petersburg campus, along with how the city rallies behind the school. She also noted USFSP’s unique courses and programming – including the College of Marine Science – and the state legislature’s recent allocation of $75 million for the Environmental & Oceanographic Sciences research facility.

“The direction we’re going is just dynamic and exciting,” said Hardigree. “I’ve smiled so much I feel like my cheeks hurt, but I am exceptionally thrilled to have been selected for this opportunity.

“I like to under-promise and over-deliver; so I’m looking forward to those opportunities to do that.”

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