TAMPA — It felt like University of South Florida trustees had to chase the Energizer bunny around, John Ramil remembers, even in the earliest days of Judy Genshaft's tenure as president. In their first strategy session together, USF's longest-serving trustee recalled Monday, Genshaft talked about her goal of making USF a top 50 research university.
"There were some snickers in the back," Ramil said. "Within 10 years, we did that. That's the kind of life she breathed into the university."
As Genshaft announced on Monday that she would step down, Ramil, the retired president and CEO of TECO Energy, was among many local leaders wondering who could possibly fill the shoes of the only leader USF has known in nearly two decades. Ideally, he said, he wants a successor whose No. 1 priority is, like Genshaft's, student success.
He wants somebody full of energy and vision, to build on USF's rapidly rising reputation. Somebody who understands big organizations — USF has 50,000 students and 16,000 employees across three campuses — and, as a bonus, boasts experience in an academic setting.
"If we can get close to matching that in someone, the university will be in good hands," Ramil said.
Genshaft's retirement has set in motion a national search for her replacement. And it will move fast, USF board of trustees Chairman Brian Lamb said.
State rules require "transparent, robust" searches for public university presidents. The cornerstone of the process is a search committee, 15 members maximum, which will work with an outside search firm that USF plans to hire shortly.
As board chairman, Lamb gets to assemble the committee. It has to include three trustees — one of whom will lead it — plus a member of the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system. Lamb says he'll craft a diverse group that represents students, alumni, faculty, the foundation and the broader region.
He plans to announce members by the end of the week.
Through the end of the year, Lamb anticipates "a tremendous amount of heavy lifting." The search committee will meet often, sketching out job criteria and compensation, consulting with the search firm and reviewing applications.
Top candidates will visit campus in February, he said, and the committee will make recommendations to trustees in March.
Trustees will tap a president-elect and get the pick confirmed by the Board of Governors in the spring. After contract negotiations and other loose ends are tied up, Lamb wants the new leader to start July 1, when Genshaft's retirement takes effect.
Outside searches can quickly rack up costs.
Just up Interstate 4, the University of Central Florida recently spent nearly $236,000 on a search to fill the void left by its president of 26 years, John C. Hitt — only to appoint Hitt's second-in-command.
According to the Orlando Sentinel, the school, its foundation and athletics association entertained candidates with $180-per-plate dinners, shelled out for consultants and flew in hopefuls from as far afield as North Dakota. The biggest cost of $150,000 went to a recruitment firm.
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The search of four months ended in March with the unanimous endorsement of the hometown favorite, Provost Dale Whittaker.
Whether Genshaft's successor is an academic, or maybe a politician, she said, the decision is out of her hands.
"I just hope that the person that comes in has the kind of passion and dedication to this institution that I've had, and that it continues to deserve," she said.
Leaders across Tampa Bay on Monday said they'd like to see a leader who will continue USF's momentum.
John Touchton, chairman of the board of directors at Tampa General Hospital, said he hopes Genshaft's successor will build on her success in forging local partnerships. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn praised Genshaft's relationship with the local business community, such as her "nimble" creation of new degree programs like cybersecurity.
When asked what he'd like to see in the next president, Buckhorn said, "More of the same."
Joel Momberg, head of the USF Foundation, said he wished he could just clone Genshaft.
"But I'm sure she's the first to say: Find someone better than me," he said.
It was a few months ago that Genshaft started asking Ramil, the trustee, how he had known it was the right time to retire.
She'd been talking with her husband, Steve, and sons Joel and Bryan about the idea since May, when she started to see some long-awaited stars aligning. Academic "preeminence" and an elevated statewide standing were on the horizon. Research dollars and fundraising were booming. USF was on the cusp of landing a much-coveted Phi Beta Kappa chapter — and much more.
Ramil says he told Genshaft that leaders err by lingering too long. She had always wanted to leave on a high note, and watched with pride as those major goals came to fruition. But she stayed quiet through the summer, and recently got a fresh list of lofty goals for the year from trustees.
"The board of trustees did not know of this decision, and I purposely wanted that," Genshaft said Monday. "I wanted the goals to come from them, as though I was going to be here forever."
Last week, she delivered her fall address without so much as a hint of her impending announcement, wanting the message of continued ambition to sink in "without any distractions."
She finally made some emotional phone calls this weekend.
"Intellectually, it's the right decision. It's the right time for me and my family," she said Monday. "Emotionally, I'm a washrag. I'm a puddle."
Ever on brand, she wore green eyeliner and a silver USF pin on her lapel as she spoke to a crowd of reporters and school leaders at a news conference Monday. Thunder boomed outside the Patel Center on the Tampa campus, and USF leaders rose in a standing ovation.
When it comes to her future plans, she says, stay tuned as she figures that out — though she promises she won't be leaving the area.
"My mind has not mentally left any inch of the University of South Florida," she said. "I'm going to lead this institution forward until July first as though I'd never leave."
She wants to raise $100 million. She wants an even stronger freshman class next year. She wants even greater research expenditures, building on this year's record high of $568 million.
"I'm going to try to wrap up everything I possibly can," she said. That includes the blueprint for the consolidation of the USF System's three universities.
But some goals she'll likely leave to her successor, like joining the elite Association of American Universities, a Who's Who of the nation's best schools.
On Monday evening, trustees took some time on a conference call to praise the outgoing leader.
"The students love you," Stephanie Goforth said.
"You've taken us everywhere that we've dreamed of going," Jordan Zimmerman said.
"She has built a platform so that if we hire the right person our future can be nothing but bright," Les Muma said.
Then they dove into the plans for what — and who — comes next.
Times staff writers Richard Danielson and Justine Griffin contributed to this report. Contact Claire McNeill at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8321.