Interview with Judy Genshaft

The University of South Florida president talks about how her enterprising Ohio upbringing bred confidence and why college sports matter

September 27, 2018
Source: Alamy

Judy Genshaft, president of the University of South Florida since 2000, announced this month that she will step down in July 2019. The Tampa Bay Times reported the news by describing her as “a campus rock star whose passion and political savvy…turbo-charged a 10-figure fundraising campaign, and helped the university shed its commuter-school stigma”. A psychologist by academic background, she is a former chair of the American Council on Education.

Where were you born?
I was born in Canton, Ohio, into an entrepreneurial family who started out quite economically disadvantaged and eventually built what is now one of the largest independent meat production companies in the United States that distributes its products all over the world. I have one older brother who now runs the family businesses, located in Ohio.

How has this shaped who you are?
From an early age, I learned the value of hard work. At age 14, I began working as part of the secretarial pool for our burgeoning business, which taught me to be organised and precise and helped me to understand the big picture of our company’s impact. As our businesses grew, so too did my parents’ network of partners, customers and supporters. We regularly hosted dinners at our house with new friends and contacts – people of all different backgrounds and experiences. I think this early exposure to such a broad base of individuals helped me to appreciate the value of diverse viewpoints, to learn proper social skills and to realise the importance of establishing relationships. It gave me the confidence to talk to anyone, from anywhere, about anything – which has been invaluable during my career.

How is USF today different from the “commuter school” it was in 2000?
We have not only more than doubled our student housing capacity to now over 6,500, we have transformed our campus into a vibrant, engaged community with more active student participation than ever before. As evidence of this shift, over the past 18 years our enrolment grew by 40 per cent to now over 50,000 while our four-year graduation rate tripled. We now strongly encourage all freshmen to live on campus because we know that it makes such a big difference in their overall higher education experience. Not only do students become more connected to the university, with a deeper sense of pride and ownership over the institution, they make meaningful lifelong connections with their peers. We have also focused on transforming USF to a more globally engaged institution. Our international student population has grown to more than 5,000 students. Another way our campus has changed is through our evolution from a regional university to an international research powerhouse.

Tell us about Tampa as a city today and about the role USF plays in it.
The Tampa Bay region is home to approximately 3 million people from all over the country and the world, and USF is the research university responsible for supporting its knowledge-based economy. USF provides talented graduates who are ready to be successful in the job market; research that is more relevant to urban issues; experts [who] serve as valuable resources on real-world challenges; and start-up companies that help our region continue to grow and thrive. It is no coincidence that Tampa Bay’s growth and evolution over the past several decades has mirrored that of the university – with each entity benefiting from the other’s success.

What achievement in your time at USF are you proudest of? 
It’s impossible to choose just one. Over the summer, we learned that the University of South Florida achieved pre-eminence, a performance-based designation that places us among the most elite category universities in the state of Florida [joining the older University of Florida and Florida State University] and makes us eligible for millions in additional state funding. At the same time we were celebrating reaching our $1 billion (£761 million) capital campaign, welcoming our most academically accomplished freshmen class in our history, and surpassing $568 million in annual research expenditures. In a broad sense, I’m proud of how our university has transformed into an internationally regarded research university – making a significant economic impact on the state of Florida and solving real-world challenges for the benefit of our society at large. I’m also proud of the way our university has prioritised the success of our students.

You’re an avid fan of USF’s Bulls sports teams. Why are sports teams so important at USF and at US universities generally?
I am a big believer in collegiate athletics as an important complement to academics. Our athletics programmes enrich the campus environment, giving students more opportunities to get involved in the university, engage with their peers, and celebrate their school pride. Athletics teams also serve as a window into the university as a whole, bringing national recognition to the institution and giving our alumni another avenue to celebrate their alma mater. Athletics also drives a spirit of competitiveness that spurs our ambitions in other areas, as well.

What are you planning to do with your retirement?
Our family loves to travel, so we will probably take a few more trips. But we haven’t made any plans. I’m looking forward to whatever adventures the future holds. 


Russell Goulbourne has been appointed the dean for the Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne. Professor Goulbourne is currently professor of French literature at King’s College London, having been dean of its Faculty of Arts and Humanities from January 2014 to July 2018. The expert in 17th- and 18th-century French literature, who taught at the University of Leeds for 13 years before moving to King’s, will take up his new role in January. Melbourne’s vice-chancellor Glyn Davis described Professor Goulbourne as “a highly respected scholar…and a skilled and experienced academic leader”. “He has a deep commitment to the role of the humanities, social sciences and languages at the university and a positive vision for the future of the Faculty of Arts,” Professor Davis said.

Richard Irons is to become the University of South Australia’s new director of student and academic services. He is currently academic registrar at the University of Derby, having previously worked at Nottingham Trent University. The Adelaide university’s vice-chancellor David Lloyd says he was “delighted to have Richard on board”. Mr Irons, who will move to Australia in November, praised South Australia’s “student-focused culture, its ambitious approach and forward-thinking strategy”. “In a higher education landscape that is increasingly competitive and constantly changing, the importance of the student experience has never been greater,” he said.

Mark Power has been named the interim head of institution of Liverpool John Moores University, following the departure of Nigel Weatherill. The former registrar, secretary and deputy chief executive took on the chief executive role after it was announced on 18 September that Professor Weatherill was to leave with immediate effect after seven years in charge.

Rachel Hewitt, currently implementation manager for graduate outcomes at the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency, is to become director of policy and advocacy at the Higher Education Policy Institute.

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