Four and a half months after Christian Hardigree became regional chancellor for the University of South Florida campus in St. Petersburg, her adjustment is based on her previous experience in the hospitality industry.
“Hospitality is about how you feel,” said Hardigree, 52, who once was a trial attorney defending hotels, restaurants and nightclubs in Las Vegas before beginning a related career in academia.
She’s encountered a range of sentiments so far, many related to USF’s controversial consolidation, which merged three separately accredited schools into one university program in 2020, and more than a few ruffled feathers.
Hardigree has heard good things about the St. Petersburg campus: its small size, the one-on-one interactions. She’s also heard what she calls the “oops” and “ow” of consolidation: For example, a student has to get up at 4 a.m. to commute to Tampa for some classes.
“Consolidation, whether you win the lottery or get hit by a bus, is my norm,” she said. “That’s what I was hired for. And it aims to take it to the next level.”
She sees the Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Sarasota-Manatee campuses as siblings, with responsibility for the middle child.
“Tampa is your firstborn,” Hardigree said. “Closed, powerful. Sarasota, the lastborn – it’s the baby, so cute. I’ve been to the campus and the growth there is amazing, but you know they’re the baby. And we’re the lanky teenager in between. What will we become?
Jason Mathis, CEO of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, said Hardigree’s personality was a good fit for the city.
“She’s funny, she’s self-deprecating, she’s positive, she’s got an abundance mentality,” he said. “Chancellor Hardigree really embodies all of these qualities that are part of our city.”
He said Hardigree faces the unique challenge of maintaining campus autonomy while integrating with the university system.
Hardigree compared the situation to being single in Las Vegas in her 20s. “You learn very quickly when to compete and when to differentiate your product,” she said. “How do we distinguish who we are?”
Part of that, she said, will be done through the interdisciplinary Center of Excellence in Environmental and Oceanographic Sciences, a facility that Gov. Ron DeSantis unexpectedly turned down this year but remains high on the USF’s wish list.
That means more time to get it right, said Hardigree, who also wants to expand initiatives with marine science and art.
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After working as a litigator for hospitality clients, Hardigree began her academic career as an associate professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She became a tenure-track faculty member and rose to vice president before transferring to Kennesaw State University. She later went to Metropolitan State University of Denver, where she was founding dean of the School of Hospitality.
In St. Petersburg, she said, it’s also about preserving the campus culture. During Hurricane Ian, Hardigree and members of her cabinet created a texting buddy system with evacuated students, bought them air mattresses from Sam’s Club, and kept in touch.
In August, her team started a supper club for teachers aspiring to employment. 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.
It’s also important to maintain the campus’ connection with the city, she said, adding that city officials have been eager partners.
She said she hopes the USF can help address some of St Petersburg’s big problems. Information sessions on the development of the Gas Plant District, where Tropicana Field is located, have already taken place on campus. And Hardigree wants to help alumni stay in St. Petersburg with affordable housing for the first three years after graduation. The idea echoes her earlier proposal to prevent the faculty from being pushed out of town.
“That’s the purpose of a college or university, to qualify people who are entering our workforce,” Hardigree said. “But when our shelters are such that they cannot stay here, we are essentially exporting our intellectual capital to guide other communities. I would appreciate it if we as an institution develop strategies to counteract this.”
Hardigree also said she hopes the campus can continue to bring its alumni back for further certification and training, and to repackage degree structures and offerings to reduce debt.
Sean Schrader, student governor for the St. Petersburg campus, who meets weekly with Hardigree, said he was initially skeptical of anyone from outside the area. But her energy and willingness to work with students quickly convinced him otherwise.
Alison Barlow, executive director of the Innovation District, said she enjoyed Hardigree’s willingness to see things from a different perspective and benefit from her past experiences. At a time when higher education is trying to prove its relevance, Barlow said it’s an important quality.