During the 71-year-old’s nearly two decades leading USF, the school’s enrollment grew by 40 percent, its four-year graduation rate tripled. Its endowment nearly doubled from $254 million to $480 million.
When I sat down in her Tampa office April 30 for this interview, she was three weeks away from announcing her $20 million dollar donation to build a formal home for the newly renamed USF Judy Genshaft Honors College. That amount that later grew to $23 million with an additional gift to endow the deanship of the school.
The size of the donation may have come as a surprise to some – Genshaft earned almost $1.2 million in salary, performance bonuses and other compensation in the 2016-17 school year, ranking seventh among public university executives. However, some of her fortune is believed to come from her family’s Ohio meat producing business, Fresh Mark.
But Genshaft’s backing of the Honors College dates back to her early days at USF, when she pushed to turn what was the Honors Program into a college.
Genshaft’s support and passion for USF, its students and its reputation was evident in my nearly 25-minute, wide-ranging conversation with her. I started with the question “why retire now?”
“It's time to leave when you're on the top,” she said. “I was reviewing all that had occurred during this year, but it was from the work from years before that ended with a combination of all these – from a billion dollar campaign for a young university like ours, to preeminence, which was phenomenal, to (membership in national honor society) Phi Beta Kappa to what we received from the American Council on Education, which was the Transformational Award.”
According to its website, the ACE/Fidelity Investments Award for Institutional Transformation recognizes a college or university that “in a period of great change in higher education, has responded to challenges in innovative and creative ways that allows the institution to thrive.”
Only two awards are handed out each year, one to schools with a student body lower than 5,000 (won this year by Benedict College in South Carolina) and one for schools with a student population greater than 5,001.
“We received this award in Philadelphia, with 2,000 people at a luncheon,” said Genshaft. “And I thought we had won an Academy Award, because our peers had voted on us in terms of student success.”
There were some things Genshaft felt she didn’t accomplish, but remains hopeful about.
“It's like being on a ladder, and you've hit a certain rung and you say, ‘Okay, now it's time for the next.’ But we've hit such a point that we're now in a new era where the competition that we have nationally is at a different level, it's a higher level, the institutions are higher profile,” she said.
“So it means we have to work even harder and make sure that we never drop in anything we do,” added Genshaft. “There are always new markers that we need to achieve, whether it's the Association of Research Libraries, we still are not in that – but we will be. And this year we did get Phi Beta Kappa (membership) and all American Association of Universities (AAU) have a Phi Beta Kappa chapter, now we do as well. So these are the markers that continue to lead us to the next level.”
While that AAU membership was something Genshaft strived for years to attain, she pointed out reasons beyond USF’s control for why that hasn’t happened yet.
“You've got to remember that these 62 (AAU) institutions, you have to be invited in (which last happened in 2012),” said Genshaft. “It’s a club.”
But Genshaft doesn’t look back with much regret, saying she’s proud of what the university has achieved since 2000.
“It's all about positioning the university to be moving to a higher status. And I truly believe that having the title of preeminence showed that we are among the top three universities in the state, and our student success is superlative,” she said. “Our research is number two in the state, public or private, our economic development – we're in a great location: urban, diverse, corporations all around us – it is something that is flourishing, and just be a part of all the good work that has been done, move it forward.”
As for what’s next, Genshaft said she and her family will stay in Tampa. But beyond that, she’s leaving her options open.
“You have to stay tuned as to what's next,” she said. “We'll do some traveling, but I've read articles about stepping down from a CEO title position, the word everywhere I've seen says, ‘Take your time, six months to a year, it's a new way of operating, a new way of thinking, and just don't grab something immediately.’”
“I don't think that I'll just sit at home at all, that's not who I am. But it's a career change and I’ll look and see what kind of opportunities become available. And if not, I'll make some happen.”
We’ll have the second part of my discussion with Genshaft – including a look at some of her biggest controversies – on next week’s University Beat.
We’ll also talk about her legacy on Florida Matters, Tuesday, June 25, at 6:30 p.m. and I’ll have an interview with incoming USF System President Steven Currall on University Beat on Wednesday, July 3 at 7:45 a.m. and 5:44 p.m.