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St. Petersburg stakeholders celebrate USF president

Mark Parker



From left: Councilmember Ed Montanari, Councilmember Gina Driscoll, USF President Rhea Law and Mayor Ken Welch at Tuesday's Presidential Inaugural Reception. Photos by Mark Parker.

Local leaders joined University of South Florida St. Petersburg officials and students to commemorate and honor Rhea Law as the institution’s eighth president Tuesday.

The Presidential Inaugural Reception offered local stakeholders a chance to recognize her presidency formally. The event precedes her Investiture Ceremony at the Yuengling Center on the Tampa campus Jan. 19.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, Mayor Ken Welch and City Councilmembers Gina Driscoll and Ed Montanari were among the attendees. Melissa Seixas, president of St. Petersburg-based Duke Energy Florida, noted the diversity in the USFSP ballroom, with students and current and former elected officials mingling alongside each other.

Seixas, also a USF trustee and the campus chair, said the first thing she noticed about Law was her boundless energy – “and I’m all about energy.” Seixas relayed how Law immediately made her presence felt in the city and that she is “incredibly generous with her time.”

“I’ve literally seen Rhea (Law) come to some five o’clock event, make a few remarks and get right back into her vehicle to go drive to some other event,” said Seixas. “All in Tampa Bay traffic. And so, I think that tells you a whole lot about her.”

From left: USF President Rhea Law; Carrie O’Brion, director of communications and marketing at USFSP; and Melissa Seixas, president of Duke Energy Florida and chair of the USFSP campus board.

Law expressed her excitement to kick off her official inauguration ceremonies in St. Petersburg. She began her career with USF working in the office of sponsored research as a student and said she realized then how marine science could propel the city and campus.

“And guess what?” she asked. “That’s exactly what is happening.”

She told attendees not to think “for one moment” that university leadership has stepped back from establishing an Environmental and Oceanographic Sciences Research and Teaching Facility (EOS), first proposed in the fall of 2021. Governor Ron DeSantis vetoed $75 million in appropriated funding for the expansive center in June 2022.

However, Law said university officials continue working hard with state and national leadership to build the estimated $80 million EOS on St. Petersburg’s waterfront campus.

Law thanked local stakeholders for believing in the project and stressed its importance to USF, the city, state and country.

“It puts us on the map,” said Law assertively. “And we are going to continue to work on that until we get it done.”

Regional Chancellor Christian Hardigree relayed Law’s unique start with the university. After realizing its employees could receive free credit hours, Law quit her job with General Telephone & Electronics (GTE), went to work in the office of sponsored research, and began taking night classes.

Law then used her USF retirement savings to work towards, and receive, a Stetson Law degree before embarking on a successful career as an attorney.

“I think about how many of our students currently or did work while they were here,” said Hardigree. “Her story is the USF story.”

Seixas noted Law later became a founding member of the university’s board of trustees and is still its first and only female chair. She also served on several other university and community boards before becoming USF’s interim president in August 2021.

Former President Steve Currall abruptly resigned after just two years at the helm, and Law subsequently guided the university through an ongoing pandemic, high-profile departures and consolidation. Despite initially declining to apply for the permanent role, Law later expressed a change of heart and called it “the privilege of my life.”

The university of South Florida reached an all-time high in the U.S. News and World Report annual rankings under Law’s leadership.

One of just three Preeminent State Research Universities in Florida, USF has achieved new heights under Law’s leadership. It received a record $151.8 million in charitable donations in FY2021-22 and reached an all-time high in U.S. News and World Report’s annual list of the best colleges in America last September.

USF placed 42nd among all public institutions and continued its distinction as the nation’s fastest-rising university. In addition, Law noted the St. Petersburg campus opened its Fintech Center last year and recently set new records for Merit Scholars (8) and students living on campus (930).

Following the ceremony, Law told the Catalyst how serving as the university’s president exceeded her lofty expectations.

“It is so much more fulfilling and purposeful than I ever imagined,” said Law. “I am blessed to do it.”




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