Worthy of Their Dreams: New Judy Genshaft Honors College building provides next-level exploration
By TOM WOOLF and DAVE SCHEIBER
Matthew Stoner describes the new home of the Judy Genshaft Honors College on USF’s Tampa campus as “a launching pad.”
For conversations and collaborations.
For new ways to learn and grow.
“What students are able to do in the building will be limited only by their imaginations,” says Stoner, a senior honors student and National Merit Scholar who is pursuing dual degrees in computer science and world languages and cultures.
Imagination. Dreams. Growth. They’re among the words frequently used to describe what the new building will mean for the college’s 2,500 students.
“This building is versatile and unique,” USF President Rhea Law says. “Every space within its five floors was designed with intentionality to foster creativity, collaboration and growth.”
As Charles Adams, the Judy Genshaft Endowed Dean of the college, notes, “Our students will be leaders in every walk of life, but the thing that binds them together in my mind is that they care about making the world a better place. Here they have, at last, an academic home worthy of their dreams.”
Primarily funded through philanthropic support, the building received a bulk of its financing through a historic gift of $20 million from USF President Emerita and Professor Judy Genshaft and her husband, Steven Greenbaum. The university celebrated its grand opening in May.
“There are three ingredients for success in a top-notch program – excellent students, excellent faculty and an excellent environment,” says Genshaft, who served as USF’s sixth president from 2000 to 2019. “This building, this environment, enhances learning. Our students will want to be here, to gather, to exchange thoughts and ideas, and learn from the amazing honors faculty we have.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re a dance major, an engineering major or a bioscience major — this building brings everyone together to learn and grow and chart their courses in so many different and exciting ways.”
The sheer size of the new facility — five stories, 85,000 square feet — is a dramatic change from the 10,000 square feet the college has occupied since 2011 on the second floor of the John and Grace Allen Building. The original administration building on the Tampa campus, it opened in 1960, the same year classes began.
The new building is feature-rich: a stunning atrium, 39 signature learning lofts, dedicated studio spaces for art, food and culture, music and technology, event space, and more.
There are classrooms, of course, including two affectionately referred to as “sandboxes.” Each of those large spaces can accommodate two classes and can be reconfigured to suit various needs.
“We were asked to dream about our ideal classroom space, and from the beginning, we called it a sandbox because in a sandbox, people bring their toys, their ideas and their willingness to get their hands dirty, and see what they can make together,” says Lindy Davidson, PhD ’16, the college’s associate dean for curriculum and instruction. “It’s through that type of play that we make new discoveries, find solutions to big problems, and grow our ability to think critically.”
Students’ input also figured prominently in planning the building.
“When the prospect of this building became a reality, we organized numerous workshops in which our students were asked to reflect on the honors experience — what it means, why it’s important, and what it should be,” Adams says.
Students also contributed ideas through a course developed by Atsuko Sakai, associate professor of instruction. The capstone course, called Exploring Behind the Veil: The New Honors Building, was offered over four semesters, with a different focus each semester, depending on the stage of construction. Students toured the building, documenting the process, and met with key figures involved in the design and construction.
Jasmine Robbins, ’23, took the course during the fall 2021 semester.
“We had meetings where we were asked about different pieces of furniture — ‘Do you like them, do you think people will use them?’ and we actually had a say about what was going into the building,” says Robbins, who earned her bachelor’s degree in biomedical sciences. “That really meant a lot to me.”
So did the opportunity to learn more about architecture and construction. She has started dental school at Nova Southeastern University.
“I have a big interest in how office construction is done for dentists,” she says. “The office environment plays a big role in how your employees and patients feel. When we learned about the honors building and how all the windows would bring in more sunlight and the different colors would help people feel calmer, I learned a lot about what I want to do with my own office in the future.”
Though she won’t get to take advantage of the new building, Robbins is excited about everything it offers to current and future honors students.
“I’m happy that our ideas were actually taken into consideration.”
Kobe Phillips, a senior honors student majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology, looks forward to the collaborations the new building will inspire with his peers and faculty members.
“At the Allen building, we would run into issues where students would want to continue conversations outside the classroom with their professors and their peers, and we didn’t have a space to let ideas thrive,” he says. “With the new building, the learning lofts are right outside the classrooms, so you can step into them and continue the conversations. There are so many innovation spaces for students to be leaders, to create new ideas.”
All of this, of course, flows from the passionate commitment of Genshaft and Greenbaum.
“We knew it was the perfect pursuit to undertake — one that cut across all three of USF’s campuses, and entwined every undergraduate major, from business to dance, and engineering to music,” Greenbaum says. “We wanted to give our honors students an energizing, welcoming, collaborative space. And we knew the honors college needed an upgrade from occupying the oldest building on campus to something new and unique.”
No details were overlooked. Genshaft, Greenbaum and Adams traveled to exhibitions to select the furniture and fixtures, and were consulted at every phase on design and construction decisions.
“Steve and Judy did a great job in making decisions and giving direction on what their vision was for this project,” says Chris Claytor, who oversaw construction as project executive for The Beck Group. “They were always saying, ‘Give us options.’”
The end result: A building unlike any construction professionals have ever undertaken (see sidebar). “We’ve been told by our amazing architects and builders that nobody has ever worked on such a challenging project as this,” Genshaft says. “There are unique elements all throughout this building — from curved glass to the flared panels over the outdoor grand staircase, to all of the special enrichment and learning spaces that will enhance education.”
During their research of other honors buildings around the country, Genshaft and Adams were repeatedly cautioned about one thing.
“The building is all about promoting gathering students together. We were warned ‘Do not have your resident halls attached,’” Genshaft says. “The problem is that the students would end up staying in their rooms by themselves too much of the time. They don’t typically get out and mix with the rest of the world, which is what they’ll have to do later.”
Instead, students can unwind in the Buddy Brew Coffee shop on the first floor or the terrace outside. Genshaft stresses that students from around campus are welcome to stop by for a coffee break, too. It’s one more way of ensuring honors and non-honors college students mix and mingle, as they do in class and in residence halls.
Creating an atmosphere in which all students feel welcome is an important feature of the new building, according to Frederick Lawrence, secretary/CEO of Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious honor society. He participated in the 2019 installation of USF’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter and attended the honors building’s grand opening celebration.
“When you admit certain students to an honors college, you are by definition not admitting others,” he says. “At the same time, you do want an honors college to enhance the full campus community. The fact that it’s not located at the edge of campus but is in the heart of campus, the fact that there’s a great coffee shop on the first floor, means that it’s a welcoming place for everyone.
“It’s not a case of, ‘We put up a big fence and you must show your honors college ID or you can’t come in.’ I think this threads the needle very, very effectively.”
Just as USF’s honors college is opening a new chapter, so too will the Hicks Honors College at the University of North Florida. Jeff Chamberlain, now in his seventh year as dean, says they will open a living learning community for 500 of their students in 2025.
He made the trip from Jacksonville to Tampa for the Judy Genshaft Honors College celebration.
“Participating in the grand opening was better than just coming and getting a tour because you get to see the whole university celebrate,” he says. “I was really impressed not only by all of the people who attended but by everybody who in some way or another contributed to the building.”
He hopes to return when USF’s facility “is a beehive of activity” to see how students and faculty are using the learning lofts and the various studio spaces.
“The wide variety of things you can do in the building is absolutely phenomenal,” he says. “Everyone in the honors college will discover ways of teaching and learning that they previously could not have imagined.”
It also helps demonstrate USF’s support for honors education, just as he intends for UNF’s honors living learning residence hall.
“Now that I’ve seen the building, I can say, ‘Look at what they’re doing at USF, they take honors seriously,’ ’’ he says. “Having really quality facilities does make a visible difference. It does show the support of honors, and I’m so glad I came.”
Teaching kitchen designed with love, fond memories
WELCOME TO THE LEONA GENSHAFT Food and Culture Studio, named for USF President Emerita Judy Genshaft’s beloved late mom. In a building that abounds with highlights, this cutting-edge teaching kitchen connects directly to the heart of the woman whose name graces the building and college.
The spacious room on the fifth floor stands out for many reasons: the custom “Bulls green” refrigerator; the state-of-the-art, industrial-grade stoves; the overhead video screens for instruction; and the legacy of the special person it celebrates.
“My mother was the youngest of seven children, and she grew up learning and loving to cook,” Genshaft recalls. “She prepared food for the entire family. It was a big undertaking but she had a passion for it.”
Genshaft vividly remembers the loaves upon loaves of pre-baked bread Leona would leave out overnight in the family kitchen in Ohio, allowing the yeast to rise by morning. Then came the important next step.
“My brother Neil and I would wake up and see a towel covering them, with a note from her on each that said, ‘Punch Me.’ We’d get right to work punching and kneading the bread so it would come out of the oven just right,” Genshaft says.
“My mother died in 2010 at almost 93, but her spirit is very much a part of the room. It’s not just about the individual recipes, but all the things you remember as a child visiting the home of your mother or grandmother — the blending of cultures, the aromas, the music and the history.”
This isn’t a residence hall dining room, she notes. Rather, it combines the arts and sciences, and the cooks will include Michelin star chefs from around the world, doctors and health experts. They’ll teach students how food is made and its medicinal and healing qualities.
“They’ll also teach about the vital importance of nutrition in maintaining a healthy lifestyle and optimizing athletic performance for the demands of different sports,” Genshaft says.
The room is the work of Ken Schwartz and David Hensel from global firm SSA Foodservice Design + Consulting. They designed kitchens for USF benefactor and famed restaurateur Richard Gonzmart’s Columbia Restaurant locations in Ybor City and Celebration, Florida; Ulele and Casa Santo Stefano, along with other restaurants around the U.S., Europe and the Caribbean.
“We knew from talking with Judy and her husband Steve (Greenbaum) that this was to be a place where people can meet, share their ethnicity, diversity and family history in food,” Schwartz says.
SSA designed a space that will allow students to cook for four to 12 people, or host a reception for 20 to 50. A Steinway piano can even be rolled in for special occasions.
It is one of many distinctive spaces in the building, including a music studio that gives the college’s orchestra and choir a place to practice and perform, an audio/visual studio for podcasts, a technology center for 3D printing and an art and design studio. But the food and culture studio is a world unto itself.
“Food is what you remember for the rest of your life,” Genshaft says. “It triggers associations with grandparents, great-grandparents. Food is memories.”
Her mother, Leona, entwined in that history herself, would no doubt approve.
Unique features of a one-of-a-kind building
THE NEW JUDY GENSHAFT Honors College building abounds with signature elements that set it apart on the national academic landscape.
“This building represents the redefinition of what’s achievable,” says Chris Claytor, project executive for The Beck Group, the project’s general contractor, and the man charged with overseeing construction from start to finish. “Not that we are explorers by any stretch of the imagination, but we really made strides in redefining what the design and construction industry can accomplish if you collaborate from the start.”
There is no shortage of unique aspects to the building. Here are Claytor’s Top 5:
Deep roots: The building has foundations that extend a whopping 135 feet into the ground — unusual for a five-story building, but making it as sturdy as possible against the Florida elements.
A tree-mendous fit: The building’s design embraced the many tall trees around its perimeter. “We maintained these 100-year-old trees while still creating this amazing structure in and around it,” Claytor says. Because of the trees located on the north side of the building, his team had to utilize a crane big enough to reach from the back of the building, over the top of the structure, and to the tree-heavy north side. Fun fact: The size of the crane triggered the need for Federal Aviation Administration approval.
Acoustic excellence: Special acoustical treatments throughout the building ensure that hundreds of simultaneous conversations, clicking heels and closing doors don’t result in a stressful cacophony. Many panels include miniature holes called “micro-perforations” that help absorb sound. There are acoustical fabric panels in the corridors, atrium and office spaces, and a treatment above the see-through, wire mesh ceilings. “That way when people are walking through the corridors and speak, the sound travels up and dies in the ceiling rather than reverberating back down,” Claytor says.
Some assembly required: The wooden beams that form the distinctive lattice system holding the 39 learning lofts required intensive planning, engineering and reassembly on site. “It took two years of coordination to accommodate one year of construction,” Claytor says. “The lattice system itself had to be fabricated and built on the ground in Texas to form fit, then taken apart, packaged and shipped and assembled back in place.” The lofts themselves also included pre-fabricated components that had to be shipped and fitted to the interior superstructure.
Maximum panel precision: To hang the more than 125 different types of exterior panels — a mind-boggling number in itself due to the curved building design — hundreds of small clips called “embeds” had to be inserted in the structure’s façade. The coordination of the façade began in fall 2019, identifying all of the attachment points for the panels. In all, some 660 embeds had to be placed into the superstructure before any panel could be hung. And placement required extreme precision — plus or minus an inch in any direction and they wouldn’t align with the prefabricated paneling assembled in Minnesota.
This required four separate levels of quality control. 1) use of a benchmark and tape measure to pinpoint the locations. 2) employing traditional survey equipment for each location. 3) laser-scanning the locations and creating a computerized 3-D model, then overlaying that on the projected embed points to identify any points that were beyond an inch in tolerance; 4) flying a drone to take high-resolution imagery of the surfaces before concrete was poured, and overlaying that on the model as a final precaution.
“All of them fit together in a very unique position and unique order,” Claytor says. “Of all the 660 embeds, we weren’t out of tolerance for a single one.”