Editorial: Genshaft steered USF to new heights — and it should keep climbing

Times (2017)
University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft speaks at a celebration last year marking the beginning of construction of the new Morsani College of Medicine in downtown Tampa.
Times (2017) University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft speaks at a celebration last year marking the beginning of construction of the new Morsani College of Medicine in downtown Tampa.
Published September 10 2018
Updated September 10 2018

University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft, who announced Monday she will retire in July, will leave behind a remarkable legacy. The university’s longest-serving president led USF’s transformation from a commuter school to a destination university that has made dramatic strides in academics, research and fundraising. The future is incredibly bright, and Genshaft deserves an enormous amount of credit for positioning USF for even greater successes in academics and as a major economic force for Tampa Bay.

Genshaft, 70, focused on the future and building on recent accomplishments in her annual fall address just last week without hinting she would be leaving. But she said on Monday — the same day USF rose 10 spots to No. 58 among the nation’s public universities on the U.S. News and World Report’s rankings — that she had been thinking about retirement since May and that the timing is right.

Her retirement announcement comes just as USF has hit several milestones. The university won well-deserved recognition in June by being named one of the state’s preeminent research universities, joining the much older University of Florida and Florida State University in the state’s top tier and winning millions in additional state dollars to hire faculty and improve student-to-faculty ratios. Last month, USF was awarded a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the prestigious national honor society. And it opened another new dormitory on its main Tampa campus to complete an ambitious project called the Village and up the number of residential students at USF to a record 6,300.

Throughout her tenure, Genshaft was an unabashed USF promoter who regularly dressed in school colors and constantly pitched the brand. She recognized the major role urban universities can play as economic catalysts and became a player in the business community, serving as chair of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and the Tampa Bay Partnership. She also developed a reputation as a hands-on administrator who paid close attention to the details, and the results speak for themselves.

Academics. In 2001, Genshaft’s first full year at USF, the average score on the two-part SAT for the freshman class was 1064. This fall, that average SAT score is 1283. The average high school GPA rose from 3.49 in 2001 to 4.09 this fall. And the four-year graduation rate has soared from 20 percent when Genshaft was appointed to 60 percent.

Research. In 2001, USF brought in $172 million in research funding. Now it ranks among the top 30 public research universities nationwide, with annual research expenditures of $568 million. USF ranks fifth among public universities in generating new U.S. patents.

Fundraising. USF broke its goal this year of reaching a record $1 billion in its latest fundraising campaign. Its endowment has nearly doubled during Genshaft’s tenure, from $254 million to $480 million.

As with any long-term leader of a prominent institution, Genshaft has endured a few controversies. She drew international attention in 2003 for firing Sami Al-Arian, a tenured computer science professor accused of creating a terrorist cell at USF who was indicted by federal prosecutors and eventually deported. She often frustrated University of South Florida St. Petersburg supporters who accused her of short-changing the campus that was separately accredited, and she was criticized for ousting the top USFSP administrator last year even though the action was justified. USF also has yet to build its long-sought on-campus football stadium, and its teams are now stuck in the American Athletic Conference that is below the Big 10, ACC and other so-called Power Five conferences.

Those are speed bumps in an overall stellar record, and Genshaft has positioned USF for even greater achievements. The main Tampa campus has never looked better. A new medical school is rising downtown, and its ties to Tampa General have grown stronger. Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation into law this spring that will reunify the St. Petersburg and Sarasota campuses with the main university. And USF should keep aiming to join UF in the prestigious Association of American Universities, whose 60 U.S. members win most of the competitively awarded federal research dollars.

A national search for the next USF president should be open and transparent, and it should produce quality candidates who can take the university to the next level in academics, research, fundraising and overall stature. Genshaft will be leaving on a high note, but it will be important to aim even higher.