It was a historic moment for the University of South Florida.
Weeks into one of the biggest oil spills in U.S. history, BP was denying that there were huge plumes of oil underwater in the Gulf of Mexico.
Then USF researchers proved otherwise, making headlines worldwide and thrusting the university center stage — just where USF president Judy Genshaft wants it to be.
"You never want to say that a tragedy like the oil spill is exciting," she said, "but to be a part of the issues of the day is so important."
And it wasn't luck that USF's College of Marine Science had the gear, the talent and the knowledge to deliver solid science on an the environmental catastrophe.
Over the past decade, Genshaft, 62, has worked to build USF into a center of research, an economic engine and a place with swagger.
So forget USF's image as a commuter school or "not a real school," says Genshaft, who marks her 10th anniversary as president today. "That is definitely not the case now."
Freshman SAT scores have risen. Thousands of students now live in traditional dorms. Campus construction on her watch tops half a billion dollars. Football is celebrated. So is science.
From 2000 to 2007, no university in the country grew its research funding as fast as USF. It has established signature programs in diabetes, neuroscience and sustainable communities.
Genshaft "has helped take that university to an entirely new level," says Frank Brogan, chancellor of the state university system.
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That said, there's room for improvement.
USF is the nation's ninth-largest public research university, but it has no chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the esteemed academic honor society. The graduation rate is below average. The ratio of students to faculty is high.
All those things are on USF's to-do list, along with continuing to boost research. USF made research a priority before Genshaft was hired. But she sharpened the focus, saying marrying research to business is key to economic growth.
"We need to bring innovation to our communities," she said.
For this, Genshaft is well-suited, business leaders say. Growing up in Canton, Ohio, she started doing secretarial work in her father's meat-packing company at age 13. She absorbed dinner-table conversations about the business and tagged along to meetings of the American Meat Institute.
As a result, she thinks like a business executive, said Stuart Rogel, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership, a regional marketing organization.
When Rogel needed someone to court SRI International and Charles Stark Draper Laboratories, Genshaft was a first call.
Despite a demanding schedule, she has been chairwoman of the Tampa Bay Partnership, the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and its Committee of 100.
"There's hardly anybody in this community she hasn't met, doesn't know or couldn't pick up the phone and talk to," Rogel said.
Her entrepreneurial approach extends to campus, too. At USF Health, for example, medical school dean Stephen Klasko wants a money-making surgical training center in downtown Tampa.
Genshaft likes hiring leaders with spark and turning them loose. "It catches on," she said.
But not so fast, says the president of the USF Faculty Senate.
Rampant entrepreneurship probably served USF well during its explosive growth, said College of Public Health professor Larry Branch. Now a more mature university needs a better sense of organization and who does what.
"We have to have accountability and clearly specified responsibilities or we're just going to be tripping over ourselves," he said.
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A little over a year into her tenure Genshaft hit her toughest crisis and USF saw a bunch of unflattering headlines as critics called it "Jihad University."
A few weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly grilled USF computer science professor Sami Al-Arian over his ties to terrorist groups.
With the campus swamped by angry calls, even death threats, Genshaft put Al-Arian on paid leave and banned him from campus. Later she considered paying him nearly $1 million to resign, an idea blocked by then-USF Board of Trustees chairman Dick Beard.
Beard said he pushed "pretty hard to get rid of" Al-Arian. Now he concedes that Genshaft minimized risk to the university. "She kept her head," he said.
In 2003, Al-Arian was arrested on federal charges that he was the North American leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a government-designated terrorist group. A week later, Genshaft fired him, saying his alleged activities harmed USF, interfered with his job and violated his contract.
It was hardly her only firing — she has gotten rid of coaches who abused players and administrators who abused their power. But it was the most controversial.
"He was using the university as a cover for his activities," Genshaft said in an interview this spring.
But professors grew uneasy.
"If any of us become controversial, does that mean that the university can fire us?" said Sherman Dorn, a professor of education and the president of USF's faculty union. "It's basically a heckler's veto on our jobs."
The American Association of University Professors agreed, condemning Al-Arian's firing as a violation of his rights as a tenured professor.
In 2006, Al-Arian pleaded guilty to telling lies and committing nonviolent acts to help associates of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Today, Genshaft said she would do the same things again in the Al-Arian case.
"There was a variety of points of view," she said. "That is what made it so hard, because I do respect faculty values. But you have to do what you think is right for the institution and the safety of the students, faculty and staff."
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To raise USF's national profile, Genshaft has served as the chairwoman of the American Council on Education and on the Division I board of directors of the NCAA.
But even on a simple walk across campus, Genshaft embraces an opportunity to promote USF. On one such stroll last fall, she stopped graduate student Ankita Datta.
"I don't know what you're doing with this shirt on," Genshaft said, pointing at Datta's orange University of Florida T-shirt. Here you should wear green and gold, she said. "It's about pride of place."
That's common, former student body vice president Bruno Portigliatti said. He has seen Genshaft buy Bulls T-shirts for students who couldn't afford them.
Genshaft is visible, accessible and responsive, he said, and her advocacy has "increased the value of a USF degree."
People often call her USF's biggest cheerleader, and for good reason. At football games, she leans out of the university's box to high-five students.
"Judy really is the face of USF," said Rod Jurado, a Bulls alum and Hillsborough Community College trustee. "When she walks in a room, the whole room gets charged up that something's going to happen."
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Most recently, USF under Genshaft's leadership has managed to absorb $88 million in cuts to recurring state funding without laying off professors. But nonfaculty staff feel underpaid, even disrespected.
"Many of our people are the poorest paid at the university," said Bill McClelland, president of the union for groundskeepers, janitors, clerks, professional and office staff. "Many have to take two or three jobs to make ends meet."
Still, McClelland said rank-and-file employees tend to like Genshaft and would welcome her presence at the negotiations handled by other administrators.
"Her involvement would be very well-received," he said.
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As USF's profile has risen, so has Genshaft's.
Jan Greenwood, who owns a firm that specializes in recruiting university presidents, said she talks to Genshaft — a "highly desired candidate" — four to six times a year. But never has Genshaft expressed an interest in leaving USF, Greenwood said.
Typically, university presidents average 81/2 years on the job. Genshaft has surpassed that, and last month trustees started discussing whether to extend her contract, which expires in 2012.
Nor does Genshaft talk like someone looking to leave. "We have only just begun," she said.
Perhaps her biggest goal for the future is to position USF for an invitation to the elite Association of American Universities.
That's not easy. All 63 AAU members, including the University of Florida, have top academic and research programs. Georgia Tech, the first school invited since 2001, only just got in.
Winning an invitation would likely mean having to improve graduation rates, student-faculty ratios, research programs and other things, few of them simple and many of them costly.
But, no surprise here, Judy Genshaft is bullish about the future of USF.
"There is an energy about this place that is very exciting," she said.