Former Provost looks back on his time at USF
On Jan. 25, former USF Provost Donald Heller announced his retirement from the University, ending a 40-year career working in higher education. Heller revealed this publicly via his social media account on Twitter. He officially retired on Jan. 31.
This past week, Heller spoke with the Foghorn and reflected on his time at the University, including the controversial end to his tenure as provost in 2020.
Although Heller was named vice president of operations after resigning from the provost’s office, he went on sabbatical. “I had a choice of either being back with the faculty, as a faculty member with the School of Education, or retiring, and I just decided it was time to retire,” he said.
Upon Heller’s announcement, University President Paul Fitzgerald S.J. provided the Foghorn with the following statement. “I enjoyed getting to know Don during his years as a member of the USF community, and I have long been impressed with his scholarship in the area of higher education research, which has influenced many. I am grateful for his contributions to our efforts and for his commitment to our students. I wish Don and his family all good things as he begins this next chapter.”
Heller was first announced by USF as provost in October 2015 and officially began his work in January 2016. When he spoke with the Foghorn at the end of his first full semester at USF, Heller said he was focused on raising student enrollment, bolstering student services such as CASA, improving student and faculty diversity, and expanding University financial resources.
“Some of the key achievements I can point to were the programs that started when I was provost,” Heller said when asked about his success during his time at USF. He highlighted the creation of the engineering program, Honors College, Black Achievement Success and Engagement (BASE) program, higher student admissions and graduation rates, and the acquisition of Star Route Farms.
Although USF raised its national academic profile and improved its financial standing under the former provost, University decisions led by Heller were also marred by controversy and backlash from students and faculty members which eventually led to his resignation as provost.
While Heller said he found his time as provost to be “with a high degree of success,” he acknowledged that issues with the full-time faculty union were not the way he envisioned his time in the role would end. However, Heller added “absent that, I thought it was very satisfying of the things we were able to accomplish in four years.”
The aforementioned soured relationship between Heller and the full-time faculty union is viewed by many as the unfortunate culmination of the former provost’s tenure. As reported by the Foghorn in late 2019 and early 2020, several faculty members consistently raised concerns about Heller’s leadership, which led to an overwhelming vote of “no confidence” by USFFA (USF Faculty Association).
“A major regret was the way it ended,” said Heller. “I wasn’t very happy about that. I wasn’t very happy I had to resign as provost,” referring to the faculty “no confidence vote.” When asked if his relationship with USFFA was what led to his resignation, Heller believes it was. Adding, “I think you might have to ask Fr. Fitzgerald to get his perspective on it because he’s the one who requested my resignation after that vote, but obviously, it was a major driving factor.”
The president’s office did not provide a comment on this matter.
Though student criticism towards the University administration isn’t new, student disapproval towards Heller was of major concern: from his handling of class cancellation during the 2018 California fires to unsatisfactory communication of rising tuition, and even Heller’s personal tweets. In reflection, Heller said, “you can look back and say I wish there was more opportunities for communication but I feel comfortable with the positions I took publicly on social media and elsewhere.”
Even though Heller’s tenure was short-term given what he faced, when asked if he had any advice for his successor, provost Oparah, Heller kept a tight lip. “I’ve given her some advice, but I’ll keep that confidential between her and me.”
However, what’s next for Heller was something he could reveal. “I’ll be doing what other retired people do and travel,” he said. Still, Heller’s passion for his work could not be waned adding, “I’m going to be doing some consulting as well, so I’ll find ways to stay engaged with higher education.”
Miguel Arcayena is a senior politics major and the Foghorn’s news editor. He covers campus breaking news and administrative issues. He can be reached at email@example.com.