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10 to watch in 2007: Betty Castor

As the jump-starter, Betty Castor seeks no less than worldwide recognition for the USF's Patel Center, not to mention a local buzz.

By Christina Rexrode, Times Staff Writer
Published March 4, 2007


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[Times photo: Bob Croslin]
Betty Castor: "People will continually ask, 'It's nice to be reaching out to people around the world, but how will people benefit here?'"

From a small corner of the Social Science building at the University of South Florida, Betty Castor crafts big plans.

Once the university's president, Castor is on a different part of campus now, with a different agenda: laying the foundation for the new Patel Center for Global Solutions.

Since she took office as the inaugural executive director on Jan. 2, Castor has been going a mile a minute. The grand vision of the center - kick-started by an $18.5-million grant from Dr. Kiran Patel, a local philanthropist - is to use USF research to improve living conditions in developing countries. Castor wants people the world over to know the name "Patel Center" within the next five years.

Castor, 65, has no plans to retire. She recognizes that she needs to make the center familiar to the Tampa Bay area, as well. "People will continually ask, 'It's nice to be reaching out to people around the world, but how will people benefit here?' " she said.

To that end, she wants students, faculty and the community to be abuzz about global issues, not just what team the Bulls are playing.

She cites last year's visit from Muhammad Yunus, the 2006 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, as an example of the kind of event she'd like to replicate. She's working with the College of Business Administration on an endowment to bring more global speakers to campus.

Castor, who was most recently in the limelight for her 2004 bid for the U.S. Senate against Republican Mel Martinez, has also been meeting with USF's student body president to talk about global alternative spring breaks. This summer, the Patel Center will take four students to the Dominican Republic to work on a solar desalination system, and two others to Costa Rica. "A nice breakthrough," she calls it, since such projects are usually reserved for graduate students.

The Patel Center will eventually hire about half a dozen faculty members for USF. The first hire, Tom Crisman, is a freshwater ecologist who was lured away from the University of Florida after almost 30 years.

Eventually, the center will be housed in a highly visible, $40-million facility near the university's main entrance on Fowler Avenue. Some initial plans called for opening Patel Center offices in Washington, D.C., and New York, but Castor plans to keep domestic operations here.

If things go as Castor plans, the Patel Center will also raise the world's awareness of the Tampa Bay area. At the end of May, for instance, the center will host 20 water managers from China, India, Egypt, Ethiopia and other countries.

"They will be looking at reclaimed phosphate pits, they will be looking at our great reservoir, they will be looking at our desal plant, they will be looking at the debates and the water wars we've had," Castor said.

"People from Tanzania will go back and say, 'I saw this in Florida, in the Tampa Bay area.' "

Castor has a resume as lofty as the goals of the center she heads. As a former state commissioner of education, state Senate president and Hillsborough County Commission chairwoman, she has a long history of serving Florida. But a global job is no stretch for her, either. She spent her first two years out of college teaching in Uganda.

Castor - the mother of U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, Palm Beach County Judge Frank Castor and schoolteacher Karen Castor Dentel - makes clear that she is running a business, not a think tank or a charity. Research that can't be applied to the real world is of no use to her. Projects that can't sustain themselves, no matter how well-intentioned, will end up on the cutting board.

Said the pragmatic Castor: "This isn't just do-gooder projects."

Christina Rexrode can be reached at 727 893-8318 or crexrode@sptimes.com.

[Last modified March 2, 2007, 21:06:45]


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