Florida Matters Looks Back At Judy Genshaft's Time As USF President

With University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft’s July 1 retirement approaching, this week's Florida Matters looks back at her 19 years leading USF.

Host Robin Sussingham talks to Assistant News Directors Steve Newborn and Mark Schreiner, who have covered Genshaft since both arrived at WUSF in 2001, shortly after Genshaft became USF's sixth president.

Here are some highlights of WUSF's coverage of Genshaft through the years:

July 5, 2000: Genshaft takes office as the sixth president of USF. At a February 2001 ceremony where she receives the presidential medallion, Genshaft uses the phrase “preeminent institution,” foreshadowing one of the major achievements she helps USF eventually attain.

“Now that USF has crossed the threshold into the ranks of major research universities, we must continue building our intellectual capital,” Genshaft says. “We must find ways to reward excellence in teaching and research at national research university levels. We must increase our number of excellent students.”

2009: USF launches the public phase of its Unstoppable fund-raising campaign, with a goal of bringing in $600 million for various university projects.

“Nobody would have believed in the fifty-some years that we’re in existence that we would be in the top fifty research universities in the country,” says Genshaft. “There is a certain dynamism about this place.”

Feb. 2011: Genshaft and her husband, Steven Greenbaum, donate $1 million to USF, creating the new Genshaft/Greenbaum Passport Scholars Fund. The gift helps USF students who want to study abroad.

“There was a bumper sticker I once saw that said ‘A mind is like a parachute, it doesn’t work if it’s not open,’ and I think when you travel internationally, it opens your mind and allows you to be more understanding and tolerant of others,” Genshaft says.

Judy Genshaft and her husband, Steven Greenbaum, watch as USF Foundation CEO Joel Momberg announces the couple's $1 million gift to fund study abroad scholarships in Feb. 2011.
Credit Aimee Blodgett / USF News

2011-2012: Senator J.D. Alexander pushes to break USF Polytechnic in Lakeland off from the USF System. USF’s administration and some faculty and students resist the separation, based on its speed as well as the effect diverting funds to the new school would have on USF’s budget.

Alexander eventually gets his way, with Florida Polytechnic becoming the state’s 12th public university

USF’s resistance, combined with the economic downturn, leads the Senate to propose a 58 percent cut ($128 million) to its funding. Genshaft and the Board of Trustees encourage the community to speak out against the move.

“We believe the University of South Florida is very strong and will remain strong. And we’ve shown this strength through the outpouring of comments and e-mails and calls,” Genshaft tells WUSF’s Florida Matters. “The legislators have heard very loudly what the University of South Florida System (says), “Don’t mess with it.”

The effort works to some extent: USF Tampa receives a $37 million cut, USF St. Petersburg about $5 million. Still, Genshaft says, it could have been worse.

"It's very, very, very good. I'm very pleased," Genshaft says. "I want to thank everyone in the community. It truly made a difference showing the strength of the University of South Florida."

Sep. 2013: Genshaft’s annual Fall Address to the university has two conflicting themes: staff and faculty will receive $8 million in raises, but there’s the looming specter of a $12 million budget cutback.

"The long decline of state financial support and now federal sequester cuts means we have to work smarter to climb that mountain," she said. "We have to be strategic in how we use our resources that's the reality. This is the 'new normal' in higher education, particularly public education."

Nov. 2013: The goal of the USF: Unstoppable Campaign grows from $600 million, which had already been attained, to $1 billion over the next five years.

“We are dedicated to continuing this campaign because we have seen first-hand the tremendous positive impact it has had for our students and faculty throughout the USF System,” says Genshaft. “Each of our institutions is stronger today because of this campaign. It is unusual for a public institution founded since the 1900's to have a $1 billion campaign. Thanks to our great alumni and community supporters, we are unstoppable.”

USF hits that goal in 2017, becoming one of only three public universities founded since 1956 to raise $1 billion in a single campaign, joining the University of California San Diego and the University of California Irvine. 

Genshaft takes the controls of some of the construction equipment at the groundbreaking for the USF Heart Health Institute on the Tampa campus in Dec. 2013. The institute instead is being built in downtown Tampa with the Morsani College of Medicine.
Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF Public Media

Dec. 2013: USF breaks ground on the USF Health Heart Institute on its Tampa campus. As with many projects, funding for the $50 million facility remains a concern.

"We need to get started with the building -- building takes at least a year if not longer, especially the kind of lab requirements and everything, so we need to get started," Genshaft says.

But the building doesn’t get built – at least not on the Tampa campus.

Fall 2014: Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik offers about an acre of land in downtown Tampa to build both the USF Morsani College of Medicine and the USF Health Heart Institute. It’s an offer that excites then Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn so much, he calls it “bigger than baseball," saying it would mean more than the Tampa Bay Rays moving across the bay to his city.

"It's 365 days a year (vs. 81 home games for a baseball team), it creates a medical educational cluster down here," Buckhorn says. “It really is a more sustainable economic engine than just an arena or a baseball stadium."

Genshaft tells USF trustees that moving the College of Medicine and the Heart Institute downtown would also free up much-needed space on the Tampa campus for the Colleges of Nursing and Public Health, as well as help focus the research and treatment efforts of other USF Health divisions.

"We will fill that space in a minute on the main campus and we're going to really laser focus on issues with the VA, as well as neuro, brain repair, Alzheimer's, cancer, drug discovery - we have so much on the main campus," Genshaft says.

Ground is officially broken in 2015 with construction beginning in 2017. The USF Morsani College of Medicine and the USF Health Heart Institute is scheduled to open in late 2019.

Genshaft, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik talk at a ceremony marking the beginning of construction on the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine in Sept. 2017.
Credit Eric Younghans / USF Health Communications

Sept. 2017: USF officials and USF St. Petersburg Regional Chancellor Sophia Wisniewska reach an agreement under which Wisniewska voluntary resigns following issues that arose during the evacuation of the campus during Hurricane Irma. The regional chancellor, who had taken the position in July 2013, also left the state for Atlanta without informing USF officials first.

Genshaft accuses Wisniewska of a “lack of leadership,” Wisniewska says she first wanted to close the USFSP residence halls on Sept. 7, but was overruled by Genshaft’s staff. Then, when ordered to close the halls, she says that the halls were not under mandatory evacuation orders.

In an agreement negotiated between Wisniewska and the university, neither side admits any wrongdoing.

But in May 2019, Wisniewska files a lawsuit against USF and Genshaft, alleging breach of contract against both Genshaft and the school, as well as defamation and infliction of emotional distress against the USF President.

The suit claims that Genshaft “willfully and maliciously distributed” a draft of an unsent letter firing Wisniewska to the Tampa Bay Times. The suit seeks damages of more than $15,000 plus court costs.

January 2018: Florida lawmakers begin considering legislation that removes the separate accreditations of USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee. They eventually approve the bill, which Gov. Rick Scott signs.

“Regardless of the outcome, we intend for each USF System campus to continue achieving higher levels of student success and scholarly activity, and as a result we will provide all students with the world-class education they came here to earn,” the university says in a statement. “We will remain focused on reaching our strategic goals, serving the entire Tampa Bay region and maintaining the strong partnerships we have built in each community.”

USFSP and USFSM will be treated as branch campuses, maintaining their separate identities, while the unified university will offer students similar classes across all three campuses. USF is required to complete the consolidation process by July 1, 2020.

Genshaft and other USF officials and staff celebrate in Orlando in July 2018 after a Florida Board of Governors committee approved USF as a preeminent university.
Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF Public Media

June 27, 2018: USF meets a goal Genshaft set during her introductory speech nearly 20 years earlier: get USF on the same level as the University of Florida and Florida State University.

That becomes official as a state Board of Governors’ committee unanimously approves USF's status as a preeminent university, joining UF and FSU.

"We're all about quality," says Genshaft. "It's not growth for the sake of getting bigger -- it's getting better."

Sept. 11, 2018: Genshaft, 70, announces her retirement, effective July 1, 2019.

“Intellectually, it’s the right decision, it’s the right time," she tells reporters and USF leaders and staff. "Emotionally, I’m a washrag, I’m a puddle.”

Genshaft says she has been talking over the plans with her husband and their two sons since May.

"You always want to leave when things are on a high, and it was my choice, and I believe it's best for the institution, and my family and I think, maybe we can get a day off here and there to travel," Genshaft says.

Genshaft presents her successor, Steven Currall, and his wife, Cheyenne, with gifts shortly after he was named president in February 2019.
Credit Daylina Miller / WUSF Public Media

March 2019: Steven Currall, Provost/Vice President for Academic Affairs at Southern Methodist University in Texas, is named by the USF Board of Trustees to succeed Genshaft.

One of the most glowing endorsements for Currall – perhaps not surprisingly – comes from Genshaft herself.

"He has all of the experience both with private academic experience and public academic experience, fund-raising, research, the whole profile is great, and he's got enthusiasm for the next era," she says.

May 2019: A $20 million gift from Genshaft and her husband leads USF to rename its Honors College after Genshaft. An additional $3 million gift announced a few weeks later will go to an endowed, named dean position for the College.

The $20 million will help build a new five-story, 80,000 state-of-the-art school for 3,000 students on the Tampa campus. The building is expected to open by 2024.

Genshaft formally established the Honors College at USF in 2002 and has long been a supporter of the program, funding scholarships, including study abroad programs.

Genshaft and her husband, Steven Greenbaum, are surrounded by students from the USF Honors College in May 2019. The couple announced a $20 million gift to the school, which will now take Genshaft's name.
Credit Adam Bakst / WUSF Public Media