Four and a half months after becoming regional chancellor of the University of South Florida campus in St. Petersburg, Christian Hardigree is building on her previous experience in the hospitality industry to settle in.
“Hospitality is how we make you feel,” said Hardigree, 52, who previously worked as a trial lawyer for hotels, restaurants and nightclubs in Las Vegas before starting a career related to academia.
So far, she’s encountered a range of sentiments, many associated with the controversial consolidation of USF, which merged three separately accredited schools into a single university in 2020. The effort, mandated by the USF legislature, state, resulted in new titles, altered lines of authority, relocated programs and more than a few ruffled feathers.
Hardigree heard the good things about the Saint Petersburg campus: its small size, the individual interactions. She’s also heard what she calls the “oops” and “ows” of consolidation: A college student, for example, has to wake up at 4 a.m. to get to Tampa for some class.
“Consolidation, whether your perception is of hitting the lottery or being hit by a bus, is my norm,” she said. “That’s what I was hired for. And that’s to take it to the next level.
She views the Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Sarasota-Manatee campuses as siblings, with her in charge of the middle child.
“Tampa is your firstborn,” Hardigree said. “Buttoned, very efficient. Sarasota, being the newest – it’s the baby, so cute. I’ve been around campus and the growth that’s going on there is amazing, but you know, it’s the baby. And we’re the lanky 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 truly embodies all of these qualities that are part of the fabric of our city.”
He said Hardigree faces the unique challenge of maintaining campus autonomy while integrating into the university system.
Hardigree likened it to being single in your twenties in Las Vegas. “You learn very quickly when you have to compete and when you have to differentiate your product,” she said. “How do we differentiate who we are?”
Some of that, she said, will be through the Interdisciplinary Center of Excellence in Environmental and Oceanographic Sciences, a facility unexpectedly vetoed by Governor Ron DeSantis this year, but which remains at the top of USF’s wish list.
That means more time to get it right, said Hardigree, who also wants to expand the initiatives into marine science and the arts.
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After working as a litigator for hospitality clients, Hardigree got her start in academia as a teacher at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. She became a tenure-track faculty member and became an associate president before joining Kennesaw State University. She then joined Metropolitan State University in Denver, where she served as the founding dean of the School of Hospitality.
In St. Petersburg, she said, another priority is preserving campus culture. During Hurricane Ian, Hardigree and his cabinet members created a system of texting evacuated students, buying them air mattresses at Sam’s Club, and staying in touch.
In August, his team launched a club supper for teachers who wish to become teachers. It’s something she said she wished she had when she started the process. She hopes this will create opportunities for interdisciplinary research, but also for camaraderie among professors at similar stages in their careers.
It’s also important to maintain the connection between the campus and the city, she said, adding that city officials are eager partners.
She said she hopes USF can help solve some of St. Petersburg’s big problems. The campus has previously hosted information sessions regarding the development of the Gasworks 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 graduation. The idea echoes his earlier proposal to help prevent professors from being kicked out of town.
“That’s the purpose of a college or a university, to graduate people to enter our workforce,” Hardigree said. “But if our homes are such that they can’t stay here, we basically export our intellectual capital to run other communities. I would like to see us, as an institution, come up with strategies to address this.
Hardigree also said she hopes the campus can continue to bring back its alumni, for additional certification and training, and repackage degree structures and offerings to reduce debt.
Sean Schrader, student governor of the St. Petersburg campus who meets with Hardigree weekly, said he was initially skeptical of anyone from outside the area. But his energy and willingness to work with students, he said, quickly convinced him otherwise.
Alison Barlow, executive director of the Innovation District, said she appreciates Hardigree’s willingness to see things from a different perspective and learn from past experiences. At a time when higher education is trying to prove its relevance, Barlow said that’s an important quality.