March 22, 2023
Judy Genshaft is a Florida Icon

Photo: Mark Wemple

Judy Genshaft: Former president, University of South Florida, Tampa; age 72

Judy Genshaft is a Florida Icon

Former president, University of South Florida, Tampa; age 72

Art Levy | 4/27/2020

I was a Girl Scout Brownie for about a day. The outfit that they had was so ugly, I couldn’t stand it.

When I arrived in 2000, USF was at a point where it was moving in a horizontal-line trajectory, and if someone didn’t pick it up and move it, the line was going to fall. So, I immediately put the emphasis on research and teaching and service to the community.

When my family immigrated from Russia, it was a situation where they couldn’t stay. There were pogroms going on.

Leadership takes time. Changing culture takes time. You can’t do it quickly.

I’m busy in retirement. I’m scheduled. I’m not stepping back and knitting. That’s just not who I am.

Hard work was a part of our family’s values. Leadership. Achievement. How are you going to make this place better? What are you going to give back to others who are less fortunate? Do good. Do right. Be honest. Those are the kinds of values that I grew up with.

My father was very driven. He was a workaholic. I thought all fathers worked six, seven days a week.

I was so proud. I had applied all over the country to become an assistant professor, and to receive (a professorship) at Ohio State University, that was great. I was given an office that had literally been a broom closet before they opened it up as an office, and I was in seventh heaven.

There are always 20% who don’t agree with you and don’t like you and want you to go away. But you just have to keep doing what you believe is right.

My parents wanted me to come into the family business, (a meat-packing company called Fresh Mark founded by her father). When I earned my bachelor’s degree, my father said, ‘you’ll be head of sales.’ Then I got my master’s degree and he said, ‘oh, you will be in charge of personnel.’ And then after I got my Ph.D., he said, ‘you’ll be vice president.’ I loved the family business. I still do. This year, the company will be 100 years old, but I would always be my father’s daughter there. I wouldn’t have had my own achievement. That was part of it. The other part was I really enjoyed higher education and learning. I just found that for me having my own career meant a lot. My dad was disappointed, but he understood.

Transportation is Florida’s issue. It always has been since I arrived here. Having multimodal transportation to get people around is not one of Florida’s bragging points. The fact that the private industry is coming in with trains and different modes of transportation is encouraging.

9/11 occurred. Sami Al-Arian (a Palestinian activist who was then a USF computer engineering professor) went on the Bill O’Reilly show and actually said nothing was wrong — and the next day we had a threat of a bomb in our engineering college. We put him on leave with pay, and I’m running around campus trying to calm everybody down. A lot of people believed that the fact that I put him on leave with pay was violating his free speech. The board passed a motion that he should be fired, but I couldn’t fire him. He didn’t violate any university policy that I was aware of, so there was tension going on everywhere.

I just had to take it a step at a time and follow the university’s rules. I would say to the FBI, ‘I’m not a police officer. I can’t arrest him. I’m an educator.’ It was a really, really, really, really tough time. We had to have bodyguards My children were young. I was glad they couldn’t read at that point. It was the roughest crisis I’ve been through.

Money has wings. It can fly away. The integrity of your name is what matters.

USF is in my heart. During my time, I graduated 210,000 students — 60% of all who have ever graduated from USF.

I have a Ruby Red grapefruit tree in my back yard. Unfortunately, two years ago, the tree got citrus greening. It’s not gone yet, but it won’t be long. Picking grapefruit, fresh off the tree, that was great.

Your first impression is very important. Look well. Stand tall. Act like you know what you’re doing. It makes a difference.

I try to be a healthy eater. I watched a former president gain 50 pounds on the job, and I said I’m never going to do that. So every July 5, I put on the same suit that I wore when I started to see if it still fits. And it does. It’s even big.

I’ll fundraise for the University of South Florida in any capacity, but the Judy Genshaft Honors College is what I want to see built sooner than later. I gave it a good jump start. (She donated $20 million in May 2019 to establish the college and another $3 million to create an endowment for the college’s deanship.) And I’m raising money for it now.

I was very, very fortunate from the very beginning to have a great board of trustees at the University of South Florida. When Jeb Bush first started the trustees for all the state universities, his mantra was the people that are selected should bring honor to the university — not the other way around.

I think I have a good sense of humor, but then I guess most people think they have a good sense of humor.


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