The curio cabinet in University of South Florida President Rhea Law’s Tampa campus office displays a few of the dozens of honors she’s received throughout a career filled with professional accomplishments and service to the university, the region and the state.
Among them is the 2021 Governor’s Business Leader of the Year Award from the Florida Council of 100. There is the 2018 Distinguished Alumna Award from the USF Alumni Association. There are mementoes from various USF colleges.
And then there’s the small black microscope, a gift from her mother when she was a little girl, fascinated by chemistry and biology. She dreamed of being a doctor.
“I would carry the microscope around and I kept slides in my pocket, and I would just examine whatever I could find,” says Law, who was confirmed as USF’s eighth president by Florida’s Board of Governors on March 22, joining a growing trend of women lawyers moving into top leadership positions in higher education.
In addition to the fond memories of childhood and family that it evokes, the microscope is symbolic of her approach to life.
“I wake up every morning and ask, ‘What can I explore today? What am I going to learn?’”
A fifth-generation Floridian and Tampa native, Law was appointed USF’s interim president last August. She brings unique perspectives to the position.
Law is the first alum to serve as USF’s president. She is one of the founding members of the USF Board of Trustees, where she spent five years as vice chair and four years as the first and only female chair. In addition, Law is a founding member of the board of directors of the USF Law Alumni Society, served as a member of the USF Research Foundation Board and chaired the Health Professions Conferencing Corp./USF Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulations for eight years. She also was a member of the search committees for USF’s two previous presidents.
Law’s affiliation with the university started in 1968.
After graduating from Tampa’s Chamberlain High School, Law went to work for General Telephone and was taking classes at Florida College. She completed a year at the college, but then learned USF employees could take six credit hours per semester tuition-free.
“That was like a light bulb going off.”
She quit General Telephone, got a job as the university research project administrator for USF’s Office of Sponsored Research and began taking classes at night.
“I loved what I was doing here,” she says. “I loved the fact that I was working with faculty from all around the university and had such diverse learning opportunities.”
She still dreamed of becoming a doctor. But when she consulted with staff at USF’s medical school, they advised against continuing to work if she wanted to pursue a medical degree.
“I was going to school on my own and really couldn’t afford to do that,” she says. “So, I just kept working and taking classes, and because I was negotiating contracts for research projects, it occurred to me that maybe business administration was a good place for me.”
Courses in business law became life changing.
“I was inspired to think about how you can be an advocate, so the only difference from medicine was the science aspect,” she says. “It was still about fixing a wrong, similar to fixing an injury or an illness, and I just loved the idea of that.”
Law remained in her research project administrator job and continued taking six credit hours each semester at night. She earned her bachelor’s degree in management in 1977.
“It takes you a long time to get through school at six hours a crack,” she says with a laugh.
Realizing that after working at the university for 10 years she was fully vested in the retirement plan, she cashed that in to pay for law school at Stetson University. Law earned her Juris Doctorate with honors in 1979.
She met her future husband, Wayne Williams, over the citizens band radio she relied on during her daily commutes to Stetson.
“I have a very heavy right foot and I didn’t want to get myself in trouble because I surely could not afford a ticket,” Law says.
She enjoyed listening to the chatter on the CB radio – “I never talked because I didn’t want to talk in that language, ‘breaker, breaker, one-nine,’ that was not me.” One day, a man’s voice says, “The girl in the little white Toyota, come back to me.” Law wouldn’t respond, even though the driver persisted for several weeks.
“It turned out this guy worked for Wayne and that driver told him about trying to talk to me every morning and that I wouldn’t respond,” Law says. “Wayne told him, ‘She’ll talk to me.’”
He was right – sort of. She says she was “really taken” with his voice, but initially refused to respond. After a few weeks of hearing him on the CB radio, however, Law accepted his invitation to join him for breakfast – a granola bar and a cup of coffee – at a scenic overlook.
“I parked behind him and stayed in my car,” Law says. “He looked OK outside the car, but I didn’t open the door. I would only roll my window down. And we agreed we’d meet again.”
As their relationship developed, she learned that Williams had been racing cars for a number of years, which paired neatly with Law’s own need for speed.
“Whether it’s a boat or an airplane or a car or a go-kart, I just love it,” says Law, a former motocross racer who also has flown in an F-16. “I like things that are exhilarating, that really get your heart pumping.”
The first gift she received from Williams was a three-day course at the Sebring, Florida, International Raceway.
“Those three days were physically exhausting,” she says.
Each day started at 8 a.m. with an hour of classroom instruction on such subjects as the geometry of racing, followed by an hour on the track. Then it was back to the classroom for an hour, followed by an hour on the track. The routine continued until 5 p.m.
“It was so much fun,” she says.
When she returned home, Law told her husband they needed a race car. Considering his own racing background, he was quick to agree. Over the course of the next year, they built one from the ground up and proceeded to enter races all over the Southeast.
Throughout their 37-year marriage, Law says her husband has been pivotal to all that she has accomplished.
“He was there as I was getting my start as a lawyer,” she says. “He has encouraged me every day.”
They came to a crossroads very early in her law career. When Williams’ business was purchased by a larger company, he took advantage of an early retirement package.
“We talked a lot about what to do,” Law recalls. “I was a brand-new lawyer. I didn’t know what my career would be like. Wayne knew we could move where he would have new opportunities and could do very well. Most amazingly, we decided we would stay here and follow my career.”
She was prepared to focus on tax law. But on her first day with her new law firm, the senior partner asked if she knew anything about chemistry.
“I told him I actually knew quite a bit about chemistry, and he then asked a second question that set me on a different focus for my whole practice,” Law says. “He asked if I knew anything about phosphate companies. Most people would say ‘No’. But when I worked at USF, my boss was a geologist and he had a research grant to study phosphate mines. I used to go out and help him with the sampling because it was fun.”
Her firm had just taken on a phosphate company as a client.
“The senior partner said, ‘Nobody really understands the science, so you’re it,’” she says. “This is day one and I’m suddenly the expert in an area that nobody else understood. That got me started on environmental law, an area I never would have thought about. Tax law wasn’t exciting, but if that was the only way I could get a job, I was willing to do it. This was so much better. It let me get out in the field, it let me explore, it let me help to make the environment better.”
Eventually, changes in state regulations led Law to also develop land use expertise. After two years with the small firm, she joined the Tampa firm of Fowler White Boggs in 1981. From 2002 to 2014, she served as president, CEO and chair of the board. In 2014, Law led the merger of Fowler White Boggs with a national firm, Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, and served as chair of the firm’s Florida offices from 2014 to 2018. She remained with the firm in an “of counsel” role, continuing to represent clients, until her appointment as USF’s interim president.
She learned valuable lessons as she developed her leadership style.
“I’m very collaborative, with a really heavy dose of communication,” Law says. “That comes from leading my law firm. You’re dealing with people – just like here at USF – who are very accomplished, very smart, very focused on their areas of expertise. There has to be a lot of communication to understand what we’re trying to accomplish, how that benefits everyone, how we can move forward together.”
Those qualities – collaboration and communication – also are essential in community service. And Law has made it a point to be involved. Among her many roles, she has served as chair of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, the Tampa Bay Partnership and the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. She has volunteered with the American Heart Association, served on the board of directors of the Lions Eye Institute, was a member of the 2008 NCAA Women’s Final Four Host Committee and was the inaugural honorary wing commander for the Sixth Air Mobility Wing at MacDill Air Force Base.
“Volunteer organizations are extraordinarily important to our community,” Law says. “I really liked getting involved in different things. Sometimes it was something I knew nothing about, but I wanted to learn. Sometimes it was something that I knew a lot about and I felt I could help the organization. If you believe in the mission, then you’ve got to get everybody to move together so you can accomplish the organization’s goals.”
Law also puts a premium on listening, something she considers to be essential in a large, complex organization such as USF.
“I spent the first couple of months as interim president going to all of the colleges, all of the units, speaking to faculty, staff and students,” she says. “I wanted to learn from them, I wanted to learn where there were problems that we needed to solve. Then, I created groups around me that I could empower to solve those problems. One person doesn’t run a university. If we link arms and we are focused on the next steps that can propel us forward, we can’t be stopped. It starts with listening, and it ends up with empowerment.”