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USF selects new provost, ending a monthslong search

A student crosses campus at the University of South Florida. [ Times (2016) ]

After months of looking and a restarted search, the University of South Florida on Monday announced its pick for a new provost: Prasant Mohapatra, vice chancellor of research at the University of California, Davis.

Mohapatra is a professor of computer science who holds eight patents and has conducted research in the fields of wireless networks, mobile communications and cybersecurity. He also has held other leadership positions at UC Davis, including dean, vice provost and chief information officer roles.

He will start at USF on March 1.

In a letter announcing the selection, USF president Rhea Law said Mohapatra’s vision and experience made him a good fit for the university.

“When I became president, I said that one of my first and most important priorities was the selection of our next provost — a decision I did not take lightly,” said Law, who was hired last March and was formally inaugurated at a ceremony on Thursday. “Throughout our national search, including last fall after we brought the first four finalists to USF for campus visits, we remained committed to continuing with the process until we found the best possible fit for USF.”

The provost is the highest-ranking academic officer at the university.

The search began last May after former provost Ralph Wilcox, who served in the role since 2008, announced his retirement. An 18-member committee working with the Storbeck Search firm yielded four finalists, including Eric Eisenberg, former dean of the USF College of Arts and Sciences, who served as interim provost.

But after the finalists’ visits to campus, Law said she wanted to continue the search and moved Eisenberg to a cabinet-level position focused on community partnerships.

“Dr. Mohapatra brings significant experience and knowledge to USF as we advance toward our goal of becoming a top 25 public institution,” John Ramil, chairperson of the search committee and former member of USF Board of Trustees, said in a news release.

Jenifer Jasinski Schneider, president of the faculty senate and a member of the search committee, said Mohapatra’s experience at a Top 25 school in the American Association of Universities set him apart. The association is an invitation-only league of top research schools that USF has long aspired to join.

Schneider said many faculty members hope the new provost will ensure the faculty succeeds as the university rises.

“Everyone always says fastest-rising, but we have to look internally at what does it mean to be a university of excellence and how is that experience for faculty,” she said. “I think a provost really has to be a faculty advocate.”

In an interview Monday, Mohapatra said his top priorities will be to help USF achieve the goals of its strategic plan: mainly getting invited to the American Association of Universities and reach the top 25 in rankings. Toward those aims, he said he’ll focus on faculty recruitment and enable existing faculty to continue their research and teaching.

“I think the benefits in terms of being compared and being in the league of peers that aspire to be among the top universities, it helps a lot,” he said. “The peers are always focused on improving their quality, and it helps a lot being in their company. I’m very confident USF will soon be in that league.”

Mohapatra joins USF at a time when tensions among faculty across the State University System have been high. Some schools have struggled to fill faculty positions as Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republican lawmakers tighten tenure rules, restrict course content on race, and begin to question universities’ initiatives on diversity and equity.

Mohapatra said he hopes to be an advocate for intellectual freedom and diversity. He said he would not wish to “create an us versus them situation,” but rather work toward making sure the university boards of trustees and the state Board of Governors are on the same page about why diversity is good.

“I believe that the quality of institutions are always enhanced by diversity, and we need to promote diversity for excellence,” Mohapatra said. “It’s not about meeting the numbers or checking the boxes, but it’s about bringing in a culture that is adopted in the community in itself.”

Mohapatra, who described his leadership style as informal and transparent, said he looked forward to starting and working with the community on USF’s goals.

“Not to have it just rise,” he said, “but leap over the next level.”

The flyer included information on the governor’s higher education budget proposals as well.

DeSantis proposes $100 million for “recruitment and retention of highly qualified faculty at state universities,” plus $15 million for faculty and student recruitment at New College of Florida, where he plans a conservative-led overhaul.

”We’re putting our money where our mouth is,“ he said.

The New College board meets today for the first time since the six appointments. DeSantis expressed confidence in the direction the new trustees are taking and said students who are upset about the changes should be able to transfer easily.

Ray Rodrigues, chancellor of the State University System, praised the governor and Legislature for supporting Florida’s public universities while other states have cut back.

”We believe in pursuing academic excellence and that is our goal,” Rodrigues said. “We reject indoctrination.”

Times Staff Writer Thomas C. Tobin contributed to this report. Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.

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