by Amy Martinez
Updated 5 yearss ago
Earlier this year, Rick Homans, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership, assembled a group of Tampa Bay business leaders to discuss ways to ensure that local college students end up with the skills employers need. The meetings are meant to give local business leaders a voice in suggesting new educational or training programs.
To co-chair the group, Homans picked Judy Genshaft, who has been active in regional economic development efforts throughout her 18-year tenure as president of the University of South Florida.
Genshaft knew how to play the game. After Homans jokingly worried aloud about educators “dominating the conversation and being defensive” and suggested that Genshaft place duct tape over her mouth, she began virtually every meeting by pretending to tape her mouth shut.
“I try to sit quietly and listen and not say, ‘Oh, we already do that,’ ” Genshaft says. “I truly believe that as the president of a public university, it’s my responsibility — and actually I enjoy it — to work with the community on making sure we have as talented a workforce as possible and to grow our economy.”
Genshaft, who also has been a board member for American Momentum Bank and chair of several economic development groups, including the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and the Tampa Bay Partnership, comes by her business savvy naturally.
She grew up in Canton, Ohio, where her father, Arthur, landed at age 12. He and his family immigrated from Russia during the 1920s, eager to escape anti-Semitism and pogroms. Genshaft’s mother, Leona, was born to Russian immigrant parents in Canton. Both families “came over with nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing,” Genshaft says.
Arthur was young when his father died, and he became responsible for his mother and two younger siblings. He gave up his ambition to become a doctor and started a meat-processing firm, Superior Provision, that he grew into one of the largest producers of bacon, sausage and hotdogs in the Midwest.
Genshaft remembers her parents hosting dinner parties with grocery executives and suppliers. “I just thought it was normal to be around all different kinds of people,” she says.
Genshaft began working at the family business at age 14, doing secretarial tasks. Over time, she became heir apparent, along with her older brother, Neil.
Her father, she says, always hoped she’d stay at the firm. “When I got my baccalaureate degree, he said I could be the personnel manager,” she recalls, laughing. “Then, I got my doctorate and he said, ‘Ok, Ok, you’ll be vice president.’ ”
Arthur died of cancer in 1979, and Neil took over the business, now called Fresh Mark. By then, Genshaft had gone her own way, not wanting to be thought of always “as my father’s daughter or my brother’s sister,” she says.
When she started classes at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1965, Genshaft considered a career in journalism — until a male professor in the department wondered why she was even at college. “ ‘What are you thinking? You’re going to have a family and never work, so why are you here?’ ” she says the professor asked her.
Genshaft quickly chose another line of study. “That settled that,” she says.
After earning a degree in social work she returned home to Canton, where she found a job in a mental health center. After a year, she felt she could make more of a difference by working in education. She got her master’s and Ph.D. from Kent State University and became an assistant professor at Ohio State University.
Early on, she sought advice from Kathryn Schoen, then the only female vice president at Ohio State. Schoen encouraged her to achieve tenure and then pick committee assignments strategically, choosing only those that would bolster her career.
Genshaft has followed that lesson throughout her academic life.
As USF’s president, she represented the Big East Conference on the NCAA board of directors. Initially, colleagues steered her toward joining the committee on women’s athletics. But a top NCAA executive told her that if she hoped to rise to a leadership position, she should start with the more influential finance or strategic planning committees. In 2010, she became the first woman to chair the NCAA Division 1 board.
“I’m very focused and goal-oriented,” she says. “And if I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it big time.”
By 1992, after achieving tenure and department-chair status at Ohio State, Genshaft applied for an opening as an associate provost but lost the job to someone with more experience. She took it as a lesson, she says, that “in order to move up, I had to move out.” She left Ohio State to become education dean at the State University of New York in Albany and was promoted to provost three years later.
In fall 1999, she applied to succeed Betty Castor as USF’s seventh president. Jacksonville businessman Tom Petway, then chair of the Florida Board of Regents, said Genshaft stood out for her ability to build partnerships with businesses and raise money, as well as for her experience with regional campuses while at Ohio State.
In September 2001, Genshaft was still settling into her new job when, 15 days after the 9/11 attacks, Sami Al-Arian, a computer-engineering professor at USF, appeared on the Bill O’Reilly show on the Fox TV network. Characterizing USF as a hotbed of militant Arabs, O’Reilly grilled Al-Arian, a native of Kuwait, about his public remarks — “Death to Israel,” “Ji-had is our path” — and whether he had helped raise money for terrorist groups.
Genshaft, still too new at the job to have built a network of allies, found herself in a superheated political environment, facing a tough dilemma: While many alumni and others wanted Al-Arian gone, faculty members regarded the matter as an issue of academic freedom.
USF math professor Greg McColm, secretary of the local chapter of the United Faculty of Florida, points to another complicating factor: The state universities had just moved to a system in which each university was overseen by a local board of trustees. (A later constitutional amendment created a statewide board of governors for the universities.) When the Al-Arian furor erupted, USF was under the uncertain authority of those newly appointed trustees, McColm says.
In February 2003, federal officials arrested Al-Arian on 50 counts of racketeering, perjury and immigration fraud. Genshaft fired Al-Arian, who ultimately pleaded guilty to supporting a terrorist organization and was deported.
McColm sums up Genshaft’s handling of the Al-Arian affair by quoting Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
“This was far beyond anything that most presidents encounter,” McColm says. “There was pressure not only from donors, but also from Washington. She managed to navigate the situation successfully in the sense that he (Al-Arian) was the only person fired. The university was not grievously wounded.”
Looking back on her response to the controversy, Genshaft says “I think we handled it as best we could. As a leader, you have to believe you’re making the right decision because you can’t live with yourself otherwise. That’s kind of what gets you through it.”
Genshaft describes her management style as collaborative. She says she surrounds herself with smart people and relies on their expertise. “I do not micromanage,” she says. “However, if they get into some issues — zoom — I’ll be there.”
One ongoing issue for Genshaft has been how much control the main USF campus in Tampa should exercise over satellite campuses in St. Petersburg and Manatee County, which have operated quasi-independently, with their own chancellors and accreditations.
Even as many in St. Petersburg have pushed for more independence, Genshaft has kept the satellite campus on a short leash. Five USF St. Petersburg chancellors have either left or been replaced since 2002.
Last year, Genshaft moved to oust Sophia Wisniewska as chancellor over concerns about her management of the campus during Hurricane Irma. In a draft termination letter, Genshaft excoriated Wisniewska for leaving St. Petersburg for Atlanta while students remained in dorms. Just before the storm, Wisniewska had implied in an email to Genshaft that she was still in St. Petersburg. “As I walked around the USFSP campus, I heard more birds chirping than students talking,” she wrote. Wisniewska, who had been well liked on campus, chose to resign.
Earlier this year, the Legislature moved to merge USF’s branch campuses in Sarasota- Manatee and St. Petersburg with USF Tampa under a single accreditation umbrella. The consolidation is to occur by mid-2020. Some on the St. Petersburg campus think Genshaft and others in Tampa had a hand in the move, but Genshaft says she was told about the proposal only after lawmakers had created it.
Genshaft says it’s the right thing to do for students, who will benefit from shared resources. “The walls come down. We’ll offer all kinds of programs across the campuses,” she says.
Genshaft considers the large gains in student graduation rates among her greatest achievements.
When her tenure began 18 years ago, only one in five freshmen who entered USF that fall graduated within four years. Derisively, USF was said to stand for U Stay Forever. Over the past decade, the school has raised admissions standards, hired professional academic advisers and overhauled the financial aid system to help more part-time students study full time. The results: USF’s four-year graduation rate has reached 60%.
Genshaft’s push to improve student outcomes coincided with a change in state expectations for the universities. Historically, as Florida’s population expanded, the state Legislature rewarded public universities financially for simply enrolling more students. Five years ago, it adopted performance standards, measuring student graduation rates, research dollars and national rankings, among other metrics. Schools that achieved “pre-eminent status” would receive additional funding.
Initially, the University of Florida and Florida State University were the only schools to qualify for pre-eminent status. In June, USF became the third, entitling it to $6.15 million in new and recurring funding.
A little more than a month later, the school got more good news when the Phi Beta Kappa Society, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious honor society, accepted its long-standing membership request. Only three other public universities in Florida — Florida International University, FSU and UF — have Phi Beta Kappa chapters.
Meanwhile, construction is under way on a $156-million building for USF’s medical school in downtown Tampa — the centerpiece of a planned $3-billion mixed-use development by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik [“A Major Stake in Downtown,” page 54]. Vinik gave USF the land, which puts the medical school closer to its primary teaching hospital, Tampa General. Genshaft believes the downtown location will help make USF a pillar of Tampa’s cultural and economic life — another of her goals.
Genshaft also is known for pitching in on efforts to attract more businesses to Tampa Bay. Homans recalls that when Bristol-Myers Squibb was considering expanding to Tampa in 2014, Genshaft met with executives in a USF conference room. The company has since opened a large local office.
“Any major pitch where I am, she’s there, too,” says Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. “The talent pipeline coming out of USF is so important to these companies. If it’s not their top priority, it’s a close second.”
In spring 2018, Genshaft began talking privately with her family about retiring. In September, on the same day that USF learned it had moved up 10 spots, to 58th, in the U.S. News & World Report annual rankings of the best public universities, Genshaft announced that she would retire in July 2019. “I’ve always believed in leaving when you’re on a high,” she says.
Shortly beforehand, she gave a heads-up to Tampa philanthropist Frank Morsani, the namesake of USF’s Morsani College of Medicine. “She just felt it was time,” he says. “When you’ve been punching the clock for 18 years, you’re ready to look at the sunset a little differently.”
Genshaft’s tenure has lasted nearly three times as long as that of the average college president. “She’s done a great job,” says Florida Board of Governors Chairman Ned Lautenbach, a Naples investor and former IBM executive. “She gets out and makes things happen. She puts the right people on her team, puts the right programs in place and drives the right results. It’s all about results.”
Genshaft says she and her husband will remain in Tampa. She has no plans other than more travel. She’s already visited dozens of countries.
She says she won’t play an active role in selecting her successor, and she declines to weigh in on whether USF’s next president should be an academic or politician. Her only hope, she says, is that her successor shares her passion and optimism for USF.
“I just love the university,” she says. “All I care about is that the university keeps moving forward.”
USF President -- Judy Genshaft, 70
- Years in the job: 18
- Hometown: Canton, Ohio
- Pay: $1.1 million in total compensation in 2016-17
- Education: Bachelor’s degree in social work and psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and master’s and doctorate in school counseling and counseling psychology, respectively, from Kent State University
- Family: She and her husband, Steven Greenbaum, a marketing consultant, have two adopted sons, Joel, 24, a graduate student in applied behavior analysis at USF, and Brian, 21, a student at Hillsborough Community College.
- Hobbies: An avid cyclist, Genshaft also enjoys traveling, going to the theater and visiting art museums.
- Fueled by $568 million in annual research activity, USF earned 116 patents last year — the most of any public university in Florida. USF spends more than $1.5 million a day on research, more than three times as much as when Genshaft started her tenure.
- USF’s endowment has nearly doubled from $254 million in 2000-01 to $480 million today. Earlier this year, USF completed its $1-billion “Unstoppable” fundraising campaign. Only two other public universities founded since 1956 have completed $1-billion campaigns.
- USF’s four-year graduation rate is now 60%, up from 20% in the early 2000s. Freshmen entering USF have average SAT scores of 1283 and weighted GPAs of 4.09.
- Genshaft also has overseen nearly $2 billion in construction projects over the past 18 years, including a new residential “village” with five dorms, a recreation facility and dining hall at the main campus in Tampa. About 6,300 students now live on the Tampa campus, up from 3,037 in 2000. A new building for USF’s medical school and heart institute is scheduled to open next year.
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