Nearly 20 years ago, the University of South Florida was widely considered to be a regional and commuter institution.
Now, two decades later, USF has established itself as a force to be reckoned with in the world of higher education. It is hard to pinpoint what exactly changed USF so much but it may not be as difficult to identify who.
Members of the USF community, past and present, all seem to have one name in mind — President Judy Genshaft, who retires July 1.
One of Genshaft’s early counterparts was Dick Beard, who served as the chairman of USF’s Board of Trustees (BOT) from 2001-07. He knew Genshaft before he joined and based on his first impression, he knew she was capable of handling the job.
Beard worked closely with Genshaft in order to establish the BOT. At that point, there were no rules, guidance or plans in place — only a set of people.
Genshaft had the idea to create a strategic plan, which would serve as guidance for the institution.
“This was instrumental for USF’s future considering this planning was done almost 20 years ago and it is still being used today,” Beard said. “It is a completely different institution.”
Beard also attributed USF’s success to Genshaft’s fundraising efforts. Last year, she raised over $100 million, an accomplishment that awarded her a $210,000 bonus.
“The university went from having less than $200 million to more than $500 million,” Beard said. “She has done a fabulous job of raising money and making USF a true research university.
“She has really focused on what it means to become a top-tier university.”
Along with her work ethic, Beard complimented Genshaft’s vibrant spirit, which is well known around campus.
“She’s got more energy than anyone I know,” Beard said. “She makes a connection to the students, she’s approachable, she’s active in the community, she has chaired major boards, the students know her — these are all important.”
Mike Griffin, Student Government (SG) student body president (SBP) from 2001-03, said Genshaft’s positive energy is the reason why he is still active in the USF community.
Last year, Griffin chaired the Consolidation Task Force and was appointed to the BOT last week. He said he has Genshaft to thank for his involvement at USF after all these years.
“She brings so much energy and passion that it’s contagious,” Griffin said. “I am sure there are a lot of people that are involved because of Genshaft. She has this amazing ability to lead others with her inclusive leadership style and I am a big product of that.”
Griffin started his freshman year at USF and served on the Student Advisory Committee for the presidential search process.
“In the early days of the search, there were strong candidates but what made Genshaft stand out was her consistent focus on student success,” Griffin said. “Looking back on the last 19 years, clearly, that focus has not wavered or changed.”
Griffin said he was Genshaft’s second student body president and her first student trustee of the BOT. During that time, Griffin said during his time as student body president, USF had an expansion of housing on campus, funding for the Marshall Student Center was secured and the events of 9/11 occurred.
“Post 9/11 affected our campus in a lot of ways,” Griffin said. “The leadership and compassion she showed around that very difficult time when I was SBP was impactful and very important in shaping the dynamic of the university.
“She embraced us, just as we embraced her.”
Moneer Kheireddine, student body president from 2017 through May 2019 and a USF ambassador, said he met Genshaft at an SG Day at the Capitol event before he was involved in any of his leadership roles on campus. He heard buzz about Genshaft’s energy on campus and how she was a role model for students.
“I talked to her about my passions and what my plans were and I have never seen a grown woman get more excited for a random person’s future than that first conversation with her,” Kheireddine said.
In his senior year, Kheireddine was elected to be a part of the USF Ambassadors, which are student leaders who serve as a link between the current student body and alumni. Along with alumni, the ambassadors work with the Office of the President.
The final step in becoming a USF Ambassador includes an interview with the president. Kheireddine said this process was intimidating for him and a lot of other students. However, during the interview, he said Genshaft still let her bubbly attitude shine through which made the experience easier.
“After we were in the program, we didn’t feel like we had to act a certain way when we were around her because she wanted to get to know our true personalities,” Kheireddine said. “Ambassadors served as her right-hand man and woman, so I think she appreciated us.”
As the eyes and ears of the student body, Kheireddine said it was rare for someone to not know who Genshaft was.
“At other universities, most students would not even be able to name their president,” Kheireddine said. “Students talked about Genshaft in a charismatic way, almost as if she was a celebrity.
“People viewed her as greater than the ground she walked on.”
As student body president, Kheireddine had one-on-one sessions with Genshaft every month to catch up with what was happening around campus.
“One of the most impactful things she has said to me was, ‘make sure your why in life revolves around helping other people,’” Kheireddine said. “She said that she did not come to USF to fulfill any self-interest and she wanted to pay it forward. She hopes that anyone that she impacts in her life will try to do the same.”
Paying it forward is exactly what she did.
Genshaft announced May 22 that she will be donating $20 million to build the Judy Genshaft Honors College. During her retirement gala on June 1, she said she would add an additional $3 million to endow the deanship for the honors building.
“For her to write those two big checks goes way beyond what anybody needed her to do,” Beard said. “It’s unbelievable she would put almost more than she ever made back into the university.”
Genshaft earned almost $1.2 million last year in salary and performance-based incentive bonuses, which made her one of the highest-paid public university presidents in the country.
Beard said he has been close friends with Genshaft for the past 20 years and has continued to stay in touch.
As Genshaft’s presidency comes to a close, Beard said he believes that President-elect Steve Currall has the potential to successfully continue the work she has done these past 19 years.
“The new guy will do a fabulous job, he has the potential to keep the continuum going of being an outstanding university that is recognized worldwide — that’s what I am hoping,” Beard said.
Griffin said he is still inspired by Genshaft and believes people will feel the same in years to come.
“She is USF. She will always be a part of USF,” Griffin said. “I am excited about our new president and what is ahead of us but Judy Genshaft will go down in our region’s history.”