January 1 marks a change at the top at the University of West Florida, when Judy Bense steps down as president after eight years. Her latest honor is being named UWF’s second President Emeritus, joining the school’s first president, Morris Marx.
“It is a signal that you are liked, and that they want to have you keep that title, because you keep that title until you die,” said Bense. “There are some rights and privileges, so we’re working on fun list – one is a parking space.”
Judy Bense was Director of UWF’s School of Archaeology in 2008, when then-President John Cavanaugh left for a similar post in Pennsylvania’s higher education system. Being named interim president by the Board of Trustees, she says, was both intimidating and surprising.
When Bense ascended to the president’s chair, UWF had a solid financial base; but the first cuts resulting from the Great Recession had already been made by Cavanaugh: ten percent, across the board.
“A few babies went out with that bathwater,” Bense said. “By the time I was in office [for] two months, the banks had crashed, the stock market was plunging, our endowments in our foundation was tanking.”
Fast forward to 2016, and Bense, who was made permanent UWF President in 2010, says the university has more than rebounded.
“We just looked at the figures for the foundation at the [Board of Trustees] meeting,” said Bense. “We have $81 million in our endowment. I saw it go down to $61 million; and it was bad.”
While equating archaeology and administration is a reach for some, Bense says her background in the former has helped her perform the duties of the latter.
“When you build a unit like archaeology, you’re the boss, a boss of one, and then it grows,” Bense said. “By the time I was asked to serve [as President], we had a unit of 60 or so people. So I had been used to the executive role, I’d been used to politics and money for archaeology. As I began to be President, all of those things served me very well.”
One rough patch for Bense was a no-confidence vote by the Faculty Senate in 2014, on issues such as admissions, faculty hiring and UWF’s standing among Florida’s other public universities. Bense agreed to elevate Martha Saunders, now Bense’s successor, to vice president, and dismiss an administrator to placate her critics. But at no point did Bense consider throwing in the towel.
“I never thought about quitting and telling them ‘Forget it.’ That’s too easy,” said Bense. I want to struggle back and figure out what’s wrong, and it worked. It didn’t take too long, but it took addressing it like a serious problem and finding out what the problem was. And it was relatively simple and fixable.”
Among those in her corner was the UWF Board of Trustees, which later awarded her a contract renewal that was extended to the end of this year. Another issue that placed Bense under the microscope was establishing a West Florida football program, something she had wanted right away, but had to wait.
“It took a couple of years getting through the recession,” Bense said. “And once we did, about 2011, I realized we were on a pretty good path. Enrollment was growing, finances were better, we were back getting money from the Legislature and I thought, ‘Boy, this is a good time to start it.’”
While Bense will be remembered for Argonaut football, there are two other things she hopes people will include in her presidential legacy: the “Town and Gown” program that bolstered relationships between campus and the Pensacola area and improved relations with the Florida Legislature to the point where UWF’s funding from Tallahassee has tripled since 2011.
Provost Martha Saunders will take over as President on January 1. As for Bense’s post-presidential life, she plans a year-long sabbatical to recharge the batteries and reconnect with archaeology, in part as an author.
“I have a book I’ve been working on that’s about 60% done, on the early 18th Century Spanish fortifications here called the Presidio,” said Bense. “That will take me a couple of years.”
But it’s not farewell. Dr. Judy Bense will return occasionally, including visits to WUWF to record new segments of “Unearthing Florida” as the founder of the Florida Archaeology Network.