USF’s new president visits Manatee County campus during first day on the job

As the University of South Florida’s new president, Steven Currall will oversee a daunting merger between three campuses, and the momentum already established by Judy Genshaft during her 19 years as president. Currall took the helm on Monday, finishing his inaugural tour with a visit to USF Sarasota-Manatee.

Standing on the first floor of the school’s FCCI Rotunda, the new president said he began a “listening tour” on Monday, an effort to learn about each campus and inform his future decisions.

“That’s part of what I’m doing on this listening tour, is to really come to understand and grasp the unique features of this campus and the Sarasota-Manatee community,” he said.

The Florida Excellence in Higher Education Act, sponsored by Sen. Bill Galvano and then signed by former Gov. Rick Scott in March 2018, required USF to consolidate its three campuses under one accreditation. Until now, each campuses was vetted on their own merits by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

A task force proceeded to meet 35 times in person and over the phone, hearing from consultants, residents, students and employees before issuing a final report last February. Less than one month later, the USF Board of Trustees approved its final consolidation plan.

USF’s three campuses — Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee — will operate under one accreditation by July 1 , 2020, exactly one year after Currall took office.

According to its final plan, the university’s top “guiding principle” is to maintain its status as one of Florida’s three preeminent research universities, a designation that garners respect and millions of dollars in annual funding.

USF Tampa earned preeminence by meeting 11 out of the 12 requirements last year, but USF expects to be judged on the performance of all three campuses going forward.

If the university can maintain its prized designation, all three campuses could benefit from the prestige and added funding that comes with preeminence. But expanding facilities, balancing existing needs and maintaining USF’s preeminence is no small task.

“We’re going to find solutions and find a path to maintain our preeminence,” Currall said on Monday. “There’s a lot more for me to learn, but we’re very committed to meeting those performance metrics.”

Another goal of the plan is unify the USF system while also preserving the unique identity of each campus. Each location offers different programs, some designed to meet the workforce needs of their own communities.

USF was already considered one institution until former Gov. Jeb Bush approved a change to state law in 2001, requiring the university to operate its three campuses under separate accreditations, according to a summary in the consolidation plan.

Though each was under the control of one president and the USF Board of Trustees, the campuses gained control over their admissions, budgets, courses and degrees.

Thanks to legislation signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis last month, USF’s locations in Sarasota and St. Petersburg will maintain some of their existing autonomy as “branch campuses.”

“One of my key priorities is thinking about how all three campuses work together in a synergistic way,” Currall said.