The St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership embodied its name Thursday, bringing city leaders together to commemorate University of South Florida President Rhea Law’s first year at the helm.
The anniversary luncheon, held at the St. Petersburg campus, kicked off with university cheerleaders and highlighted Law’s many accomplishments in her first year. Just three days before the event, USF reached an all-time high in U.S. News and World Report’s annual ranking of the best colleges in America. It came in at number 42 among all public institutions.
In the spirit of collaboration to increase success, attendees included state representatives and several city and educational officials. Jason Mathis, president of the downtown partnership, noted that USFSP’s location in the heart of St. Petersburg creates an “incredible synergy” between the business sector and academia.
“That’s something that’s very special about this campus,” said Mathis. “And we don’t take it for granted.”
The St. Petersburg campus
Despite the windfall in state funding for USF this year, the governor vetoed $75 million earmarked by the legislature to begin construction on St. Petersburg’s Environmental and Oceanographic Sciences Research and Teaching Facility (EOS). However, Law remains undeterred.
“We’re going to get that building on this campus,” said Law emphatically.
The good news, said Law, is that lawmakers recently approved $15 million in funding to establish the Florida Flood Hub for Applied Research and Innovation at USFSP. She called that a start to realizing the vision of creating a center for excellence in oceanographic sciences in St. Petersburg.
Law added that in the coming weeks and months, USF officials would work closely with the governor’s office and the legislature to ensure the remaining aspects of the complex come to fruition.
“We are being recognized as a place for science, discovery and solutions,” she said. “People are seeing that.”
The future of Albert Whitted Airport and how to make it more inclusive to residents has been the subject of much debate in the city. Despite the close physical proximity to one another, the two St. Pete institutions have yet to collaborate.
When asked if university officials would welcome a partnership on a program for students, Law said studies are needed to determine needs, gauge interest and lay the framework for facilitation. She added that “a lot of things are changing in the community as it relates to aviation,” but she is open to any discussions.
In other USFSP news, Law relayed that residence halls are at capacity for the first time in history. A proud accomplishment, she said, considering research shows academic efforts increase and students enjoy a better college experience when living on campus.
Law also reasserted a desire for USF to occupy a prominent place in the redevelopment of Tropicana Field and the former Gas Plant District.
“We want to bring the power of the University of South Florida as a whole to that area and provide what’s needed in that community,” she said. “And we would be very concerned if other universities were brought in to do that.”
Looking to the future, Law said the university’s success would hinge on its ability to create a symbiotic relationship between its three campuses.
Law called USF a place for solutions – a place community leaders can turn to when they need help solving problems. She used a recent $5 million grant from the Tampa Electric Company (TECO) as an example.
TECO officials recently announced the gift – the largest ever for the College of Engineering – was to fund USF’s Clean Energy Research Center. “To help create and work with them on a technology that doesn’t exist,” said Law.
“I’m so proud of the fact that we’re seeing people come to us with really gnarly questions and gnarly problems that haven’t been solved yet.”
USF recently increased its minimum wage to $15 per hour, and Law relayed plans for further raises. However, she said it was “a start” and noted the importance of showing that the university cares about its employees, regardless of their roles.
Law said USF now attracts the “best and the brightest” minds to teach and learn at the university and is also working to address critical workforce needs in industries like nursing and cybersecurity. The legislature, added Law, recognized that USF is a place for solutions and specifically tasked the institution with increasing its number of graduates in those fields.
In June, Governor Ron DeSantis approved nearly $245 million in legislative appropriations for the university, including the largest single-year investment in operational support.
“The legislature this year was so kind and focused and directed at making sure we had the resources we need to be able to really move this university forward,” said Law. “This year was the year they said, ‘you know what, USF is worth investing in.’”