10 Years of Change: USF grows from commuter school to preeminent and proud

Dr. Judy Genshaft is asked a simple question. She responds with an even more simple question.

“Ask me how I’m feeling?’’ says the President of the University of South Florida.

That question quickly is posed and Genshaft is ready with an instant answer.

Judy Genshaft“Preeminent and proud,’’ Genshaft says emphatically.

Genshaft is feeling so proud because less than a year ago, the Florida Board of Governors named USF a “Preeminent State Research University.’’ The University of Florida and Florida State University are the only other universities in the state to hold that honor, which is based on achieving at least 11 of 12 benchmarks on metrics that include things like graduation rates, student retention rates, research and expenditures, and the number of patents awarded. Earning preeminence immediately earned USF an additional $6.15 million in recurring annual funds through the program.

The preeminent status along with USF being accepted into the Phi Beta Kappa honor society are the highlights of Genshaft’s presidency, which began in 2000 and will end with her retirement next month. “Preeminent and proud’’ may be Genshaft’s legacy but it also summarizes the current mood of nearly everyone at USF -- from administration to staff to faculty and students. Once known as a local commuter school with modest academics, USF has grown tremendously in national prestige and actual size. The growth started even before Genshaft’s arrival and continued through her early years.

But let’s just focus on the last 10 years because that has been the decade in which USF has made its greatest strides.

“A decade ago, we didn’t have Phi Betta Kappa and we weren’t preeminent,’’ USF Provost Ralph Wilcox says. “We didn’t always recruit the best and the brightest students and faculty. Now, we do. Give credit to our trustees during the last decade.

Ralph WilcoxCorporatization wasn’t looked fondly upon at the time by some members of the faculty. The trustees realized it takes money to provide quality education and we weren’t willing to compromise and that’s a big reason for the rise in prominence of USF on a national level.’’

Founded in 1956, USF didn’t officially open until 1960. In a relatively short time, USF -- in terms of accomplishments -- has caught up to or surpassed many universities that had a head start of more than 100 years.

“I remember sitting in a board meeting about 10 years ago and someone said we wanted to be one of the top 50 research institutes,’’ Trustee John Ramil says. “There were some laughs and chuckles.’’

But there are no giggles these days. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, USF led the nation with 12 faculty members earning Fulbright Scholarships in the 2018-19 school year. USF also led the nation in the same category in 2016-17. So how did USF come so far so fast?

“You have to remember that a decade ago, we were in the throes of a recession,’’ Genshaft says. “The nation was hurting and the state of Florida was hurting. Budgets were cut and just about all of our construction came to a halt. But we kept working on our principles. We just kept asking ourselves, “Are we a national model in different areas? Why or why not? And how do we get there and what do we need to stop? … You have to pay attention to the crisis. But people don’t remember the crisis in time. They remember what you’ve accomplished.’’

“We didn’t bury our head in the sand,’’ Wilcox says. “We just kept soldiering on.’’

Measuring success by the numbers

Genshaft and Wilcox say the key was to continue pursuing the best and brightest students and faculty. And success has been dramatic. That’s solidly backed up by numbers, supplied by school officials, comparing where USF was in 2009 and where it is in 2019.

  • The four-year graduation rate for freshman is now 60.5 percent; in 2009, it was just 43 percent.
  • The total student headcount for the USF System, which includes USF Sarasota and USF St. Petersburg, is 50,853; it was 47,339 in 2009.
  • Annual research expenditures are $582 million compared to $371 million a decade ago.
  • The total number of alumni has increased to 333,199 today, up from 218,336 in 2009.
  • In 2009, USF earned 35 U.S. patents. In 2018, the number was 96 and ranked seventh among all American public research universities and 16th worldwide. (For further context, in 1992, the first year such figures were available, USF earned only five patents. The school hit its high-water mark in 2017 with 116 patents.)
  • The USF Unstoppable Campaign, a fundraising initiative, was launched in 2009, reached $1 billion in 2017.
  • During Genshaft’s tenure, she oversaw approximately $1.75 billion in construction projects.
  • In its early years, USF had limited student housing on campus. Under Genshaft’s leadership, student housing capacity doubled to approximately 6,500 system-wide.
The spikes in the numbers are glaring. So are the many new buildings and facilities. But Genshaft says those numbers weren’t necessarily what she and the Trustees were focused on.

“Even more than getting bigger, always getting better is what we cared about most,’’ Genshaft says.

Football as an economic engine

Although USF's history goes beyond the 10-year period covered by this story, there is one other ongoing reason for growth and improvement at USF that just about everyone agrees has been crucial. That’s the presence of a big-time football program. With the late Lee Roy Selmon, a Pro Football Hall of Fame member and perhaps the greatest player in the history of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, leading the way with vision and fundraising, USF started the football program in 1997. The Bulls haven’t won any national championships but were ranked as high as No. 2 in 2007.

Rocky the Bull dates back to 1974.“Football is an important component of a university, especially in Florida,’’ Genshaft says. “It becomes the front door or front porch into a university. Sports cross race and gender and they bring pride. Everybody has an opinion about sports. Football is so important in so many aspects. When I watch a football game, I watch my budget go up or down based on if we win or lose.’’

As Genshaft prepares to step away in July, USF is at the high point of its existence. In May, she made a parting gift of $20 million to the university to support the Honors College. The gift from Genshaft and her husband Steven Greenbaum will help build a permanent home for the college, which will carry Genshaft's name.
The five-story, 80,000-square-foot structure will go up on the Tampa campus, next to the USF Muma College of Business. The building will cost about $47 million and is expected to open within the next five years.

“The Honors College draws students from all academic disciplines across all three USF campuses. More than 2,200 students are currently enrolled. But it's expected to grow to around 3,000 by the time the new building opens,’’ reports WUSF.

At a June 1 gala event at the Tampa Waterside Marriott where dignitaries and alumni celebrated her service, Genshaft and Greenbaum added another $3 million to endow the deanship of the new Judy Genshaft Honors College at USF.

Where does USF go next?

The USF Health Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Institute is moving to Water Street Tampa along the downtown waterfront. The 13-story, 395,000-square-foot facility is scheduled to open in late 2019. “Giving back is something I believe in,’’ Genshaft says. “First you learn. Then, you earn. Then, you need to return,’’ quoting longtime Tampa philanthropist Frank Morsani, who along with his wife Carol, has given more than $40 million to USF, including large donations for a new medical school in downtown Tampa. “It’s not just money. It’s mentoring and helping others.’’

But, in a few weeks, someone else will be leading USF. That’s Steven Currall, currently the Provost/Vice President for Academic Affairs at Southern Methodist in Texas. Those involved in his official interview for the position say they see a new President who will continue to build on what Genshaft started.

“He described USF as having limitless opportunities,’’ Ramil says. “He believes we can continue the improvement and continue to grow our national brand and ranking. He ended his interview by very firmly saying, ‘I want this job.’ That was very impressive.’’

Although Currall will take over a school that now has a solid academic reputation, school officials say there are more goals on the horizon. An on-campus football stadium (the Bulls currently play home games at Raymond James Stadium) is at least a possibility. But, more importantly, officials say the top priority is to continue to improve academically. Both Ramil and Wilcox point to membership in the Association of American Universities (AAU) as the next major goal. The AAU is a collection of the top 62 research universities in the United States and Canada. According to its mission statement, “member universities earn the majority of competitively awarded federal funding for research that improves public health, seeks to address national challenges, and contributes significantly to our economic strength while educating and training tomorrow’s visionary leaders and innovators.’’

“We will continue to gravitate toward having the best and brightest students and faculty,’’ Wilcox says. “I don’t want to hear any more about “huge potential.’’ In most ways, we’re already there. We want to stay there and take it to the next level.’’
For more information about USF, please visit the university’s website.

Here are links to additional organizations mentioned in this story:
Preeminent State Research University
Phi Beta Kappa

Association of American Universities

Here are links to additional news reports:
Genshaft Gives $20 Million To USF's Honors College
Frank & Carol Morsani -- Leading People of Tampa
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Read more articles by Patrick Yasinskas.

Patrick “Pat” Yasinskas is an award-winning Tampa-based freelance writer. He has covered the National Football League since 1992 and worked for The Tampa Tribune, The Charlotte Observer and ESPN. He also has served as a selector for the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the NFC South chairman of the Pro Football Writers Association. He also has been an avid baseball card collector since the 1970s.