Florida Trend | Florida's Business Authority

Lessons from Judy

This month, the University of South Florida is scheduled to open the new Judy Genshaft Honors College on its Tampa campus. It’s an exquisite, modern building geared for collaboration and interaction. In many ways, its quite like the president emerita herself.

I worked for USF for 12 years and spent about half that time as President Genshaft’s speechwriter. It was a fortuitous vantage point to see transformative leadership in action, but also an invaluable education on how one determined person willing to commit decades of her life to a mission can make a difference.

Of course, she didn’t do it alone — faculty, staff, trustees, alumni, donors and community partners all had an important role in the effort, and there’s no discounting the hard work of the students themselves. That’s the magic of great universities; they’re the ultimate group project. Two other factors were essential: The clarity of mission before us and a strategy to reach those goals that was baked into our daily work. That kept the organization focused on its top priority: Student success.

I imagine decades from now someone leading a campus tour will gesture to the building and tell prospective students how President Genshaft put USF on the map as a research university. The $20-million donation from President Genshaft and her husband, Steve Greenbaum, in the final months of her presidency (along with $3 million to endow the deanship and the millions more they have helped raise for the university) is likely the largest single donation from a sitting president in American higher education. She will get deserved credit for bridging the gap between the region’s business community and the university, strengthening the talent pipeline and diversifying the economy.

But I also hope future students learn how devoted she is to them as young people entering a challenging world, how her commitment reverberated through the organization and energized it, and still inspires others today.

Some leadership gurus call it finding your “why.” There was never a doubt why she — and by extension, we — were there.

President Genshaft was energized by the challenge of working within complex systems to accomplish a goal. She knew if USF could help build a bridge to the future for students, it would change the trajectory of their lives as well as their families’ futures. The point would be driven home at graduation when one of my favorite things to do was linger after the ceremony offering to take family pictures so everyone could be in the shot. I’d often spot my colleagues doing the same; we knew how much that day meant.

Like many of the nation’s public metropolitan research universities, about 40% of USF’s undergraduate students rely on federal Pell grants, and thousands of incoming freshmen each year are the first in their families to attend college. The academic support systems created at USF are uniquely successful on a national level in eliminating the achievement gap based on race or family income. Some might remember that President Genshaft started her career working to help gifted students make the most of their talents. In many ways, she never stopped doing that job.

She began each semester walking the campus welcoming students — shouts of “Judy!” echoed through the cavernous Marshall Student Center each time she set foot in it — and personally congratulated every student who crossed the graduation stage. Acclaimed actor and singer Quentin Earl Darrington was one of the students who met President Genshaft on her first day on campus; she invited him to sing at her inauguration. When Darrington left USF for Broadway, President Genshaft arranged for him to complete his bachelor’s degree remotely. He later earned a graduate degree and hopes to be a professor some day.

She wanted USF students to gain knowledge through experiences, especially travel, internships and research, knowing how much young people navigating unfamiliar environments learn about others, but mostly about themselves.

Many people covet the title of university president, but the job is an all-consuming creature with more than its share of heartbreaking days. It means taking responsibility for the well-being of tens of thousands of young adults in the most formative years of their lives, while giving them the opportunity to make the world their own.

Admittedly, college kids don’t always pay much attention to the names on buildings. But I can’t be at USF and not feel the presence of leaders — Sam Gibbons, LeRoy Collins, Betty Castor, Bill Young, John Germany and Lee Roy Selmon among many, and now Judy Genshaft — whose legacy isn’t a name on a marker or a building, but the vibrant futures shaped there.

Find me on Twitter, @VickieCFLTrend, and LinkedIn.