USF hears pitches from two candidates vying to be its next president

The day before the University of South Florida board of trustees will meet to interview and likely select the school’s next president, the two candidates for the job made their pitches to the public.

Interim USF president Rhea Law and Jeffrey Talley, former chief of US Army Reserve, spoke about their leadership styles and issues such academic freedom, diversity and the challenges of running a university in an increasingly political climate. The two appeared separately at town hall-style events Monday, darting across the region to address students, faculty and alumni at USF’s campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota.

Law, 72, a prominent Tampa attorney, has held the position on an interim basis since August when former president Steve Currall stepped down. She said she was eager to apply after board of trustees chairperson Will Weatherford, who appointed her, released her from an agreement not to apply for the permanent role.

“It has been an honor and I’d like to stay,” Law said at a session in St. Petersburg.

University of South Florida interim president Rhea Law participates in a town hall event on Monday, March 21, 2022, that was part of the school’s presidential search. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Law described her style as one that begins with communication and leads to collaboration and empowerment.

She pointed to her experience over the last year, creating task forces to solve problems such as the controversy that emerged last year over developing forest land near the university and creating new committees to help advise decision-making.

Talley, 62, pitched his background in academics, having held adjunct, full-time faculty and department chairperson positions at several universities including the University of Notre Dame, Southern Methodist University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Southern California.

However, being a successful university president also requires a business background and understanding how government works, said Talley, whose resume includes a stint as a vice president at IBM. Those experiences, he said, could help him raise USF’s profile nationally.

Jeffrey Talley, former head of the US Army Reserve, speaks during a town hall event on Monday, March 21, 2022, at the University of South Florida's St. Petersburg campus.  Talley is competing to be the university's next president.
Jeffrey Talley, former head of the US Army Reserve, speaks during a town hall event on Monday, March 21, 2022, at the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus. Talley is competing to be the university’s next president. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

He said he takes a “big tent” approach to leadership, with “all flaps and doors open” and inviting as many people as possible to decision-making. “Often the youngest and people closest to the problem, he or she has ideas we should listen to,” he said.

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A retired Army lieutenant general, he talked about the difference between “hard power” and “soft power,” adding that most generals are introverts, not always the dominant figures portrayed in movies.

“The most important thing for a leader is creating other leaders,” Talley said.

He said he’s well aware that those outside of a main campus can feel like “second-class citizens,” adding: “It doesn’t have to be that way.”

The remark drew nods from an audience on the St. Petersburg campus, which has a history of pushing back against USF’s Tampa-centric culture.

He pointed to his experience helping grow Texas A&M’s satellite campus in San Antonio around an identity of cybersecurity. Each campus, he said, needs to find what their “secret sauce” is and have it clearly branded and better defined in the university’s strategic plan.

Law spoke on similar themes and pointed to her previous experience merging law firms, creating an identity that was bigger than each of its parts. At USF, she supports distinct identities for each campus, such as oceanographic and marine sciences in St. Petersburg and hospitality management in Sarasota-Manatee, she said.

The two candidates also described the qualities they would hope to see in a St. Petersburg regional chancellor and they committed to conducting national searches for new provost. Both positions are coming open soon.

Law said she wants a provost who “has seen the mountain” and has the “excitement and energy” to help USF meet its goals of becoming a Top 25 university and joining the American Association of Universities, a group of top research schools in the US

Talley said he would emphasize looking for diverse candidates. Upon looking at the president’s cabinet, he said he noticed many women but not people of color. The provost position, he said, would be an opportunity to change this.

“Whether it’s me or your interim president, we’re both white people,” he said. People “need to be able to look up at the senior leadership team and see people who look like them…. You’ve got to surround yourself with people who don’t look like you, talk like you, think like you, who won’t just tell you what you want to hear.”

He said also spoke of his experience diversifying the top ranks of US Army Reserve.

Law, too, emphasized the importance of being intentional about diversity and digging deeper into campus culture.

“How are we treating our people?” she said. “Do we have the open arms we portray ourselves as having? Are they really open arms? Are we really making everyone feel comfortable? And if we don’t, how do we do that?”

The candidates also discussed the climate in state government.

Talley spoke of the importance of building relationships with the Legislature and governor. He said, “You have to be able to walk that line,” which means listening to lawmakers while defending academic freedom. “It starts with respect.” he said.

Law also expressed her support for academic freedom.

“That’s what a university is,” she said. “We are the place that has freedom of thought, the ability to help our students think about things far outside their experiences. We’re not here to indoctrinate them, we’re here to expand their learning.”

She said it’s important that the faculty want to keep working at the university, and along with students and staff, feel valued beyond monetary measures.

Those who watched Monday’s sessions were invited to provide their feedback to the board of trustees, who will review it before the interviewing both candidates Tuesday morning.

“I’m glad I don’t have to choose, because it’s going to be incredibly difficult,” said Levon Sains, a senior military science instructor at USF who listened to both candidates. “They both bring something very, very special.”

Tanika Mascias, a professor of military science, also listened to both candidates. While she said she felt slightly biased toward Law because she’s been here, she found Talley’s comments on diversity “phenomenal.”

“His knowledge on academia made up for his lack of knowledge on USF proper. But I think president Law, she knows the university,” Mascias said. “I think it’s going to be tough for them to choose…. Either way, we’re going to win.”

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