USF St. Petersburg Regional Chancellor Christian Hardigree
USF St. Petersburg Regional Chancellor Christian Hardigree has an office that overlooks Bayboro Harbor. Her task as she settles into the job will be to retain the small campus's unique flavor while ensuring that it remains a vital part of a much larger university. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Four and a half months since becoming regional chancellor for the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus, Christian Hardigree is leaning on her previous experience with the hospitality industry as she settles in.

“Hospitality is about how we make you feel,” said Hardigree, 52, who once worked as a trial attorney defending hotels, restaurants and nightclubs in Las Vegas before starting a related career in academia.

She’s encountered a range of feelings so far, many of them associated with USF’s controversial consolidation, which merged three separately accredited schools into one university in 2020. The effort, mandated by the state Legislature, resulted in new titles, altered lines of authority, relocated programs and more than a few ruffled feathers.

Hardigree has heard the good about the St. Petersburg campus: its small size, the one-on-one interactions. She’s also heard what she calls the “oops” and “ows” of consolidation: One student, for example, has to wake up at 4 a.m. to commute to Tampa for some classes.

“Consolidation, whether your perception was hitting the lottery or being hit by a bus, is my norm,” she said. “That’s what I was hired into. And it’s to take it to the next level.”

She sees the Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee campuses as siblings, with her in charge of the middle child.

“Tampa’s your firstborn,” Hardigree said. “Buttoned up, high-achieving. Sarasota, being the last-born — it’s the baby, so cute. I visited the campus and the growth going on there is amazing, but you know, they’re the baby. And we’re the gangly teenager, in between. What are we going to become?”

Jason Mathis, CEO of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, said Hardigree’s personality fits the city well.

“She’s funny, she’s self-deprecating, she’s positive, she has an abundance mentality,” he said. “Chancellor Hardigree really embodies all of those qualities that are part of the fabric of our city.”

He said Hardigree faces the unique challenge of maintaining the campus’s autonomy while fitting into the university system.

Hardigree compared the situation to being single in her 20s in Las Vegas. “You learn very quickly when you should compete head to head, and when you should differentiate your product,” she said. “How do we differentiate who we are?”

Part of it, she said, will be through the Interdisciplinary Center of Excellence in Environmental and Oceanographic Sciences, a facility that was unexpectedly vetoed by Gov. Ron DeSantis this year but remains at the top of USF’s wish list.

That means more time to get it right, said Hardigree, who also wants to expand initiatives with marine sciences and the arts.

After working as a trial attorney for hospitality clients, Hardigree got her start in academia as an instructor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She became a tenure-track faculty member and rose to assistant president before moving to Kennesaw State University. She later joined Metropolitan State University of Denver, where she was founding dean of the School of Hospitality.

In St. Petersburg, she said, another priority is to preserve the campus culture. During Hurricane Ian, Hardigree and members of her cabinet created a texting buddy system with students who were evacuated, buying them air mattresses from Sam’s Club and staying in touch.

In August, her team started a supper club for faculty going up for tenure. It’s something she said she wished she had when she started the process. She hopes it creates opportunities for interdisciplinary research, but also camaraderie among faculty at similar stages in their careers.

Keeping the campus’s connection with the city is also important, she said, adding that city officials have been eager partners.

She said she hopes USF can be part of addressing some of St. Petersburg’s big issues. The campus already hosted information sessions regarding development of the Gas Plant District, where Tropicana Field is located. And Hardigree wants to help alumni stay in St. Petersburg, with affordable housing for the first three years after they graduate. The idea echoes her earlier proposal to help keep faculty from being priced out of the city.

“That’s the purpose of a college or university, to graduate folks to go into our workforce,” Hardigree said. “But if our housing is such that they can’t stay here, we’re essentially exporting our intellectual capital to go run other communities. I’d like to see us as an institution come up with some strategies to address that.”

Hardigree also said she hopes the campus can continue to bring its alumni back, for further certification and education, and repackage degree structures and offerings to reduce debt.

Sean Schrader, student governor for the St. Petersburg campus who meets with Hardigree weekly, said he was initially skeptical about someone from outside the area. But her energy and willingness to work with students, he said, has quickly convinced him otherwise.

Alison Barlow, executive director of the Innovation District, said she’s enjoyed Hardigree’s willingness to see things from a different perspective and draw from her past experiences. At a time when higher education is trying to prove its relevance, Barlow said that’s an important quality.

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