One day before the University of South Florida board of trustees is expected to choose a new president, candidates for the top job stopped in at each of the university’s three campuses.
It’s been part of a whirlwind week of activities that kicked off Monday, when the board announced four finalists, each vying to succeed Judy Genshaft, who will step down July 1 after a 19-year tenure at USF.
During fireside chats with identical questions, each presidential candidate talked about their top goals, how they would work with key stakeholders, and the role the school plays in economic development. Several questions focused on consolidation, as USF moves ahead with a plan to have its Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee campuses operate under a single accreditation beginning in July 2020.
The discussion has brought a lot of angst to the community, said Jeffrey Vitter, former chancellor of the University of Mississippi and distinguished professor of computer & information science at the school. He was the first candidate to speak at the fireside chat at USF St. Petersburg.
“I would spend a considerable amount of time, especially in my first two years, really engaging all the campuses, being here and being in Sarasota/Manatee to interact and engage around these issues,” he said. “I know in these questions implicit is a concern that consolidation may hurt the university or diminish the identity of the individual campuses. I want to say that first and foremost, it’s really important to respect the identity and accomplishments of the St. Pete campus, of Sarasota and Manatee, that is absolutely crucial.”
One university should be seamless in terms of admissions, and sharing courses and other resources, he said.
“When you look at a multi-campus system, whatever one campus does all campuses should be able to brag about. The activities across the entire set of campuses lift the entire university. That’s a real important opportunity to move the identity and each of its campuses forward,” Vitter said.
Wanda Blanchette, interim provost and executive vice chancellor for academic affairs and Rutgers University-New Brunswick, said she’s worked most of her career at urban campuses within university systems.
“I really believe that whoever comes in as your next president has to be sensitive to and responsive to the local needs, perceptions, ideas and aspirations for the regional campuses,” she said. “A starting point certainly is to develop really close relationships with the regional chancellors. They are the experts on the campus, so really get to know them as people, also get to know their plans and their visions for the campus that have been co-constructed with their local boards, and then from there begin to envision what can be a system for the University of South Florida.”
Blanchette, the second of the presidential candidates to stop in at USF St. Pete, also stressed the advantages of operating as a single university. She cited the graduation ceremony at Rutgers, when the school awards nearly 15,000 degrees and the football stadium is packed.
“Students and families leave with the notion that regardless of where you attend the value of your degree is exceptionally high,” Blanchette said.
She said she currently see differences between student experiences on the three USF campuses.
“I think as one university, we have to ensure that regardless of the avenue through which students come through the university, they have similar and comparable experiences,” Blanchette said.
Few academic leaders have merger and acquisition experience, said Deba Dutta, distinguished professor of engineering and former chancellor at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. adding that he does.
Dutta, the third USF presidential candidate to speak at USF St. Pete, was a newly hired provost at Purdue University when he was tasked with consolidating two regional Purdue campus into one.
“I understood the tension inherent in this kind of a merger. There was a lot of stress, anxiousness and concerns, Dutta said. “I engaged with them, I visited them regularly … My strategy was to ask the question — what is good for the students. When you look at it that way, it makes a very big difference.”
Dutta also organized systemwide summits, one-and-a-half day gatherings with faculty and leadership from all the campuses.
“Each campus shared. Everyone gets to know what is happening at the other campuses. Then we would have breakout groups where we would find ways, across the system, we could develop programs,” he said. “We would leave the summit with tasks clearly defined.”
He said if he is chosen as president for USF, he would replicate that here. “Now is the time to build a community across the three campuses and share opportunities for collaboration, sharing best practices and think about the future as USF.”
The fourth candidate, Steve Currall, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Southern Methodist University, was at USF St. Pete late Thursday afternoon.