Can a new president navigate Florida’s political maelstrom?

Long-time University of South Florida booster Rhea Law gets the presidency, leaving faculty to wonder if the moment is too much for anyone

April 20, 2022
University of South Florida president elect Rhea Law enters the room to applauds and cheers as she is named the new university president as described in the article
Source: Alamy

Inside one of the nation’s most toxic environments for higher education, the University of South Florida appears pretty sure that it has found in Rhea Law its best possible president for the moment.

Ms Law, a career lawyer deeply connected to the state’s dominant Republican Party, was chosen by USF’s governing board to replace Steve Currall, an academic who struggled with political touch and left after just two years.

She began serving as interim president after Professor Currall’s departure last summer, and became a somewhat surprising last-minute candidate only in late February, after what USF’s search committee described as a groundswell of demand for her to step over more than a dozen other accumulated contenders.

With her permanent appointment finalised late last month, Ms Law now heads one of the bigger universities in one of the most divided states of a deeply fractured nation. It’s a place where the governor and his legislative allies have been fervidly waging an anti-education campaign that includes limiting academic speech, restricting the teaching of gender and racial equity, cutting tenure and interrogating students and faculty on their personal viewpoints.

In an interview, Ms Law mostly walked a careful line to match her fraught time and place. She suggested, but did not overtly affirm, the unease she is understood to have shared more privately on campus over some of her party’s more aggressively anti-education pursuits. More clearly, she promised to listen to USF’s faculty and help protect them.

“I tell them: we are here together, we’re working in concert with each other, and we’ve got each other’s back,” she told Times Higher Education.

The message and the approach appear to be winning converts on campus, at least as long as she can hold some kind of middle ground in a state where the governor and his top political allies show no signs of relenting in their campaign of demonising higher education.

“I was fairly sceptical at the beginning,” Timothy Boaz, an associate professor of mental health law and policy, and president of the USF Faculty Senate, said of Ms Law’s appointment last year as interim president. “But over eight months, it was apparent to me that she wants to do the right thing.”

Just getting in the door stands as a huge accomplishment. Presidents across the state’s top public institutions have hit the exits in recent months – including those from the University of Florida, Florida State University (FSU), the University of North Florida and Professor Currall. Governor Ron DeSantis, a likely 2024 US presidential candidate, has suggested that such institutions are “hotbeds for stale ideology”, and has had academics statewide fearing that he will install proven allies in those leadership posts.

One of them is Richard Corcoran, a former speaker of the state House of Representatives, who reached the point of being a finalist at FSU before the university managed to reject him. The state legislature, however, has pushed ahead with new rules that will keep such search processes secret from the public, and Mr Corcoran is expected to try again at the University of Florida.

Ms Law, in her THE interview, aimed to avoid such controversies. Despite 12 years on the USF board of trustees, eight months as interim president, and a career in the bowels of Republican politics, she pushed aside a general question about the current partisan climate by insisting: “I’m kind of new for that.”

She was far more open in describing her plans for making the three-campus, 50,000-student institution more responsive to the needs of the local job market, building its research output with the goal of joining the Association of American Universities, and substantially raising its sports profile.

Yet on several of the specific political challenges, Ms Law did offer some insights – often a firm assertion that whatever political rhetoric is being thrown around, no harm will ultimately come. One example: the recent law establishing annual political opinion surveys of Florida’s college students might be agitating many academics, but Ms Law noted that it lacks any legal compulsion.

And USF does not seem affected, she said, by Mr DeSantis’ efforts to stop scholars testifying in court as expert witnesses against his policy positions.

Ms Law argued with particular clarity against any weakening of tenure protections, as Mr DeSantis and Republican lawmakers have been demanding. “Tenure, academic freedom – all of these things are important to faculty, to have them feel secure, and to be able to recruit top faculty to come to your university,” she said.

However, Alex Levine, chair of USF’s philosophy department, warned that the test of Ms Law’s commitment to the university and its faculty was not just about her skills in managing the running threats by Mr DeSantis and his fellow Republican lawmakers.

Instead, Professor Levine said, it will be an individual incident, such as when the University of North Carolina withheld tenure from Nikole Hannah-Jones or Texas A&M University let Tommy Curry leave rather than clearly protect the expert on US racial history from threats of violence.

“They didn’t have his back, the University of Texas system didn’t have his back, the attorney general of Texas didn’t have his back, so he was basically run out of town,” Professor Levine said. “And that could easily happen to one of us here.”


Print headline: Can new leader straddle divide in partisan state?

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Reader's comments (1)

Seems like the ideal candidate, well connected to the ruling party, but able to work with those who oppose them. As for 'tenure', most of the academic's with tenure who have been ousted by their employers seem to have fallen foul of those who come from the opposing political standpoint. However DeSantis is correct about equity-minded educators and their institutions being out of touch with the concerns of most tax paying, thus State funding, voters.


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