University of South Florida President Rhea Law
University of South Florida President Rhea Law said during interviews for her job that hiring a new provost would be one of her top priorities. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The University of South Florida’s national search for a top academic officer is back to the drawing board after President Rhea Law announced that none of the finalists to be provost were still under consideration.

The search, in its sixth month, will continue until USF finds “the best possible fit with the right vision and experience,” Law said in a message to the university community Wednesday. Four finalists, including interim provost Eric Eisenberg, had been named last month and the high-profile group participated in interviews and campus visits.

“When I interviewed for the position of USF president, I said that one of my first and most important priorities was the selection of our next provost — someone who could help build on our momentum and take USF to new heights of academic excellence,” Law wrote. “As one of the most important roles on my leadership team and a key complement to my role as president, this is a selection I do not take lightly.”

An 18-member search committee, chaired by former board of trustees member John Ramil, convened in May and held 12 town halls before announcing the finalists. Besides Eisenberg, they were Pranesh B. Aswath, senior vice provost for academic planning and policy at the University of Texas, Arlington; Erin McNamara Horvat, senior vice provost for faculty advancement and undergraduate affairs at Drexel University; and Giovanni Piedimonte, vice president of research at Tulane University, who was a finalist in Florida State University’s presidential search.

Eisenberg was the dean of USF’s College of Arts and Sciences before being appointed to serve as interim provost, taking over for Ralph Wilcox, who stepped down from the post last year.

In an email, a USF spokesperson said the university will continue to use a search committee to find a provost. Law said she asked Eisenberg to withdraw and move to a newly created position on her cabinet: senior vice president of university-community partnerships. She said next steps would be announced soon.

She said it became apparent during the search that Eisenberg has “a broad and unique skill set that will be exceptionally important as we seek to distinguish ourselves as a model metropolitan research university.” She cited relationships he’s developed with local businesses, nonprofits and governments, saying “his far-reaching institutional knowledge suggest to me a different calling.”

Eisenberg said at a faculty senate meeting Wednesday that he believes USF can become uniquely competitive by strengthening its ties with community partners, from entities like local school boards to the NAACP. “It’s been frustrating for a lot of our external partners to know how to connect with us,” he said.

Though the decision came about in a “circuitous way,” Eisenberg said, he was happy to take on the new role.

“Sometimes you go to the library and it’s the book sitting on the table you weren’t looking for that changes your life,” he said.

Higher education reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.