University of South Florida


Transcript of President Steven C. Currall's Inauguration Speech

Inauguration of Steven C. Currall, PhD, 7th President, University of South Florida, November 14, 2019

Thank you, Chair Zimmerman. Your confidence and your leadership mean so much to me!

And, Sir Malcolm, thank you for that kind introduction. I have greatly valued our friendship since that day in 2005 when I first met you in your office at University College London to discuss our plans for founding a new academic department in the Faculty of Engineering Sciences.

Your remarks have illuminated for all of us the fascinating dynamics of global higher education and considerations for how university leaders can further strengthen their institutions. 

I also wish to sincerely thank Professor Maria Dixon Hall for that inspiring invocation. What a wonderful way to set the tone for today’s events. Maria, you are a special spirit, and a dear friend. 

To Rev. Osborn, you have been a friend for decades, and in your special ways, helped bring me to this stage today. Thank you for being here.

Provost Wilcox, Professor Stanish, President Deas, and to all the representatives of the students, alumni and Foundation who are with us -- thank you for your generous welcome and for all you do to support USF.

I also wish to recognize Chair Lautenbach and members of our Board of Governors, colleagues from across the State University System of Florida, as well as our USF Board of Trustees. 

To my dear wife, Cheyenne, ever since the very first day we met at our Cornell in 1988, 31 years ago, you have been a source of love, support, inspiration, and wise counsel. None of this would be possible without you.

I also wish to thank my father, Jim Currall, for attending today.  He traveled a long distance to be with us and I am grateful for his courage, and his love as a father for the past 61 years.  Without his steady hand and counsel, I would have not made it through college, much less had any career at all!

My mother passed away in 1989, so she is not physically here today.  But, my Christian faith gives me confidence that her spirit is here, and I know that she is encouraging me, as she did so well for many years.

Finally, I would like to warmly recognize the many members of the faculty who are with us here today -- from the University of South Florida and those representing universities from all over the world.

Your presence represents the strength of the global community of scholars, educators, and intellectuals: A community dedicated to the betterment of society, and to the development of future generations. 

Speaking of educators, each of us here today probably had one, or perhaps more than one, educator who inspired us and believed in us even when we did not believe in ourselves. 

I’ve benefited from more educators than I can list.  But, I will offer one thank you to an educator who impacted me.  And, this example illustrates the insight, even uncanny insight, that some educators have about young people.

Now, despite the fact that I have pursued an academic career, at the age of 15, I can assure you that I was anything but an intellectual. 

But, Mrs. Marilyn Williams, my ninth-grade librarian at Center North Junior High School in Kansas City, Missouri, recognized in me, at this early age, potential I didn’t know I had.

Here is an image of what Ms. Williams, who is in the white shirt in this photo, wrote in my school yearbook in 1974, when I was 15 years old:

Old yearbook photo of Marilyn Williams, signed by her, with quote below.

“Dear Steve:  I still think you’re an intellectual – you just don’t know it yet.  Really enjoyed having you in the library this semester.  Good luck at the high school.  Marilyn.”

Little did Mrs. Williams know that I would later have an academic career!

Doesn’t that show the insight that educators can have about students?  Educators have a wonderful capability to shine a light on a young person’s promise. 

And, so the journey brings us here today...

I believe that a university presidency is a position of unselfish service and stewardship. 

I wish to express my deepest gratitude to the USF community for the faith you have placed in me to help steer this great university into what will hopefully be our greatest era yet.

As president, I see myself as a humble relay runner, who builds on what those before me have accomplished, such as former presidents Betty Castor and Judy Genshaft, who are with us today. 

As that relay runner, I will hopefully contribute to what those after me will achieve.

Indeed, this event is less about me personally than it is about an opportunity for our community to pause and reflect on how far we have come; to remember the foundation upon which we were built.

And, most importantly, it is a time to look ahead and to imagine an audacious new future for the University of South Florida.

It is a time for us, together, to ask a critical question:

What is our strategic identity as a university? Who are we, and what do we stand for?

I would submit for your consideration that the answer to these questions is in a unique juxtaposition of two concepts.

The juxtaposition is this:  The University of South Florida is an institution where both excellence and opportunity converge. 

Let me explain…

Sixty-three years ago, in 1956, Florida state leaders recognized the need to create not just a new university, but a new type of university.

The University of South Florida should meet the needs of a dynamic, urban metropolitan region, it should have a highly relevant curriculum, and it should hold a spirit of service and strong partnerships with the surrounding community.

That’s an exciting mission. 

The University had modest beginnings, as shown in this early-days image of the front entrance to our campus.

Empty road with car driving, USF Campus

You see here a long and dusty road surrounded by a barren terrain with a few trees and sand spurs. 

Being from the mid-west, I did not even know what a sand spur was until I moved to Florida.  What I’ve learned is that, more than anything, people are most interested in eliminating sand spurs from their land!

So, our University has evolved a great deal since our founding.  I’ll say more about that in a moment.

In fact, in 1956, our University was emblematic of a new type of university that was coming into vogue.

Clark Kerr, former president of the University of California and one of the fathers of modern-day American higher education, was at that time developing ideas that were inspired by the impactful land grant universities around the country. 

TIME magazine cover showing Clark Kerr

Land grant universities were founded in the early 1860s with the signing of the Morrill Act by Abraham Lincoln.  Their mission was to serve their communities through the “agricultural and mechanical arts.”

It’s amazing that Lincoln had the foresight to support such public universities... As if he did not have enough to do in 1862 during the height of the Civil War!

Kerr recognized the distinctive value of land grant universities through the service that they provided to their states and communities.

And, in 1968, he extended that concept of a service-oriented university to what he called, “the urban-grant university.” 

In Kerr’s mind, an urban grant university “should come in with its shirt sleeves rolled up” in service to urban communities.

USF’s founders certainly shared Kerr’s sentiments, creating what was the very first university in Florida to be founded with a comprehensive mission, intentionally placed in a vibrant urban center in Florida. 

Image of John Allen at commencement

USF’s first president, John Allen, put it this way during his first student convocation in 1960: “We have an unparalleled opportunity to build on the best of the past” to produce a new future characterized by excellence.

I share this historical background to emphasize that at USF’s core is a very special expectation, a responsibility that is unique to us in this state.

Like all great universities, we are first and foremost guided by the ideals of higher education: the noble search for truth, the dissemination of knowledge and the fierce protection of freedom of expression, speech and inquiry.

But at USF, our mission is so much more than that of the traditional establishments of higher education. Our impact stretches so much further than our campus walls, out to the communities of Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota-Manatee and beyond.

As a 21st century urban research university, the unbridled ambition with which we were founded calls us to greater levels of achievement, namely, a commitment to academic excellence as President Allen explained.

Yet, at the same time, USF has a societal commitment to support upward economic mobility and regional economic development; to support opportunity.

Those seemingly incompatible aims, excellence and opportunity, are, in my opinion, anything but mutually exclusive. 

To the contrary, when people ask me what is unique about the University of South Florida my response is that our identity captures this seemingly paradoxical juxtaposition of excellence and opportunity.

So, as we reflect on our past and look toward our future, it is the convergence of excellence and opportunity -- specifically, the renewal and deepening of them -- that will be the hallmark of our next institutional era.


Let us explore the University’s commitment to excellence…

Next year, in 2020, for the first time in our region’s history, all of Tampa Bay will be served by a nationally ranked, preeminent, public university -- the fastest-rising public university in the country.

Over the past 10 years, no other public university in the country has risen faster among U.S. News and World Report’s national university rankings than the University of South Florida.

We have welcomed increasingly competitive students, with our Fall 2019 freshmen having an average ACT score of 28, the 90th percentile, and a high school GPA of 4.13.

Not to mention our incoming Morsani College of Medicine students, whose average MCAT scores of over 515 placed us among the top medical schools in the country.

Meanwhile, our student-athletes have succeeded spectacularly in the classroom and on the field and on the court.  Our student-athletes have won a total of 120 conference championships in our history, including, just recently, our women’s soccer team.  Our football team has reached 150 wins faster than any other university in the state of Florida.  And, our women’s basketball team recently knocked off the number 15th-ranked University of Texas Longhorns!

During its relatively short institutional history of about 60 years, USF’s ascent in the higher education landscape has been remarkable:

●   The university ranks 25th among public universities in the nation in total research expenditures at nearly $600 million.

●   USF ranks 7th among public universities in the nation and 16th among all universities worldwide in creating new patents.

●   USF received the 2019 American Council on Education Award for Institutional Transformation for its student success initiative to elevate student retention and graduation rates.

●   USF is one of only three universities in Florida, and the first located in an urban area, to achieve “Preeminence” based on the performance metrics set by the State Legislature and monitored by the Florida Board of Governors. 

Consider our faculty excellence, as well:

●     Our faculty includes 14 members of the National Academies

●     As of 2018, USF has a total of 65 Fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. This places us 4th worldwide for organizations with the most AAAS Fellows.

Our faculty are the life-blood of the University and are pivotal in advancing our standards of academic excellence. 

I would like to share with you two examples of faculty members, and one alumna, who are channeling their creativity to create solutions to some of society’s greatest challenges:

Daniel Yeh

Maya Trotz

Joanna Fowler

One quick note about Joanna, the last researcher you saw...  Joanna is not only one of the world’s most esteemed researchers, a member of the National Academy of Science and a recipient of the National Medal of Science by President Obama in 2009 — she is a USF alumna and was a member of the very first graduating class at USF!

In so many ways, she exemplifies USF: Determined, optimistic and selfless.

This spirit of excellence is echoes across our entire community and can be seen in every aspect of our university.


Let us now turn to discuss opportunity.

The University of South Florida is indeed fortunate to be located in a vibrant urban, metropolitan region.

Like USF, the Tampa Bay region is not only growing, but growing in the right direction -- with a focus on innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship.

Like USF, the region is becoming increasingly diverse -- with potential to shape a new kind of knowledge-based economy that thrives on human capital and nurtures opportunity.

But it is still an economy that is nascent, relative to other large, growing states in our country.

To provide some context, last year, nearly 80 percent of all venture capital investments went to just three states: California, New York and Massachusetts. Those three states are also home to 77 percent of Fortune 500 companies. 

Not coincidentally, those states are also home to some of our most prestigious universities.

As I have said, I believe USF can become to Tampa Bay what Stanford has been to Silicon Valley.

Our diverse population in Tampa Bay represents a microcosm of our global society: a fascinating fabric of individuals with an innumerable range of experiences, perspectives and ideas.

USF has no less than 4,620 international students from 141 countries.

We also have socio-economic diversity – no less than 41 percent of our undergraduates are Pell Grant eligible, which means that their families come from modest economic circumstances.

USF remains not only one of the most diverse institutions in the nation, but most importantly -- all of our students, regardless of their backgrounds or circumstances, succeed at the same rate. 

We retain 89 percent of our students from the first year to the second year at USF.  And, we graduate 71 percent of them in six years.

Those are incredible accomplishments that we should be very proud of.

As Sir Malcolm discussed earlier, today’s students are more globally informed, more culturally aware and perhaps more eager than any generation before them to make an immediate impact on the world.

In fact, USF is a world leader in providing global opportunities for our students and faculty.  Take, for example, that USF has been the top producer of Fulbright Scholars in the nation for two of the past three years.

Additionally, just a few days ago, USF won the Platinum award for Global Learning, Research and Engagement, which is the highest honor bestowed in this area by the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities. 

We remain committed to further reinforcing the already inclusive community at our University and our campus climate of mutual respect that embraces a diversity of backgrounds and points of view.  For example, I have recently announced formation of a university task force on USF’s Principles of Community.  This group of faculty, staff, and students will draft a list of principles that will further cement our inclusivity.

Meanwhile, the size and strength of our research enterprise now rivals those of our aspirational peers within the top ranks of America’s most esteemed universities -- now with nearly $600 million in total research expenditures.

These research activities spur a rapidly growing economic impact and job opportunities for our region.

This past year alone, our innovation activities alone generated $582 million annually for our local economy, sustaining more than 4,000 public and private sector jobs. 

Tampa skyline, with "a university for a vibrant metropolitan region" tag

Importantly, USF is an engine to create opportunities for our society because much of our energy is channeled toward practical problems, translational science and culturally relevant creative works. 

This work creates opportunities for job creation and promoting prosperity in our region.

It’s one thing to measure and quantify this economic and societal impact. It is another to experience it first-hand, as many of our students have.

And so, I’d like you to hear directly from some of our students who have experienced the unique opportunities afforded at USF:

Kaitlin Deutsch

After Oxford, Kaitlin is now pursuing her PhD in entomology at Cornell, (my alma mater!). She is studying the ecology and conservation of insect pollinators and has already received more than $10,000 in grants to fund her research.

Michael Calzadilla

As for Michael, after he completed his Master’s in Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, he was offered a second Gates Cambridge Scholarship to pursue his PhD at Cambridge as well. But he ultimately decided to pursue his PhD in Astrophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he is currently working as a Kavli Graduate Fellow. 

Xigrid Soto

Today, Xigrid is completing a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Kansas, where she is working with young, at-risk bilingual Latino students to develop more effective literacy teaching methods.

The opportunities that these students experienced are just a few examples of what makes the University of South Florida so unique: the incredible power that comes from combining excellence and opportunity.

And, we will create ever more opportunities by capturing the synergies between science, engineering, health and our vital and vibrant liberal arts, humanities, and visual and performing arts at USF. 

In fact, I believe that the true future of innovation will be based on a convergence of digital technologies and the humanities, such as the study of languages, culture, ethics, philosophy, and religion.   

This emphasis on the combination of excellence and opportunity is happening today while USF is uniting as one strong university that will serve the entirety of our region.

USF consolidation isn’t only a combination of our three campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Sarasota-Manatee.

Three images together, one of each usf campus

The reunification of our three campuses represents a powerful synthesis whereby the whole will be much greater than the sum of its parts.

Our reunification is an extraordinary opportunity for the USF community to strengthen our stature as a Preeminent research university and to advance new and innovative ways to serve our students, faculty, alumni, and the broader Tampa Bay region.

In closing, as of today, I have now been your president for 137 days.

And during that time, I have had the privilege of listening to, and getting to know so many of our talented faculty, dedicated staff, enthusiastic alumni and supportive advocates and philanthropic donors.

What’s remarkable to me is that as diverse a community as we are, there is something that we all have in common.

We are all driven by a desire to build.

We’re drawn to USF not because of what we’ve already done, but what we can create together. 

Today, I have offered my own perspective on how USF is unique.

Where Excellence and Opportunity Converge

As President, my mission is to build on our momentum, fostering a campus environment for innovation where we will relentlessly push forward on both excellence and opportunity.

Even more exciting than what USF has accomplished is the extraordinary promise of what it will accomplish in the future. 

We will accomplish this by expanding our resources through ambitious advocacy to governmental funding sources and, very crucially, by expanding our philanthropic support to the university from alumni and friends and by building our endowment.

My singular objective for our university during the remainder of my career will be, together with each of you, to advance the trajectory of USF to become an overall top 25 public university in the United States. 

And, our ultimate objective is to reach eligibility for membership in the Association of American Universities, the 65 top research universities in North America.

Ladies and gentlemen, there is so much to be proud of here at USF.  And still there is so much ahead for us to do together!

Thank you for joining us for this extraordinary event today and for allowing me to join you as a member of the University of South Florida community!

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