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Judy Bense: From Archaeology To Presidency

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University of West Florida
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University of West Florida President Emeritus Judy Bense was among three new members of the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame, inducted Monday night in Orlando. In the second of two parts, WUWF’s Dave Dunwoody spoke with her about her tenure as UWF President.

In 2008, Judy Bense had a number of irons in the fire, including running the School of Anthropology and Archaeology. Then, President John Cavanaugh stepped down to take a position in Pennsylvania. Bense – who was in Mexico at the time -- was asked to take over on an interim basis.

“I said ‘absolutely not;’ I was busy, I was at the peak of my career,” said Bense. “I had gotten great funding and I was beginning to do work in Mexico to follow up the background work with the Spanish colonial work I had done [in Northwest Florida]. I was really doing well.”

Three times the search committee asked Bense to take the job, and three times she refused. But after a close friend said the school needed her in that office, she says she began thinking about that, and her work with past presidents.

“What I had learned was, they hadn’t done a lot of things I thought needed doing,” Bense said. “They hadn’t grown the enrollment; they hadn’t built dorms. They didn’t have any visibility; we didn’t have any football. We needed to reach out to our community.”

Another factor in Bense’s change of heart and mind were rumbles coming out of Tallahassee, from her alma mater.

“We had tried to been taken over twice by Florida State; they’ve always needed another campus,” said Bense. “I realized – and I knew – that the only thing that was going to save this university from a takeover was to grow and to make it independent. And so I thought, ‘I could do that for this university.’ So I said yes.”

That same year, 2008, the “interim” part of her title was discarded, and Judith Ann Bense became West Florida’s fifth president and the first woman to hold the office. She entered office armed with a quote: “I have picked rather big goals and tend to think big and that inspires others.” That, she says, is the impetus behind the growth on campus during her tenure.

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Credit University of West Florida
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University of West Florida President Dr. Judy Bense does the coin toss Saturday during UWF's first home football game at Blue Wahoos Stadium in 2016.

“We grew our enrollment by 30% in the middle of a recession; we built two dorms in the middle of the recession because concrete was never going to be cheaper,” Bense said. “And if you don’t think big, you’ll never be big. An in our culture, size matters. And being the smallest, in the smallest region of Florida with the least money and the least students, you’ve got to try to get big. And people will get on board.”

Bense’s accomplishments speak for themselves, from archaeology to the presidency, to five books and a sixth on the way. But for many, she will be remembered for one thing above all – an announcement she made in 2011 regarding the school’s master plan.

“And yes, ladies and gentlemen, part of that plan includes football,” Bense told a rally on campus while holding up a prototype football helmet to cheers. “That’s UWF; so let’s live up to our potential.”

“That’s one of the things I thought about right at the beginning, said Bense. I am from West Florida, I grew up in Panama City [and] went to Florida State,” said Bense. “I understand that football is important, and enjoyed by almost everybody here. And we’re the only institution that can give West Florida college football – so why not?”

But there were some obstacles to overcome, such as Tallahassee putting up a prevent defense when it came to funding and other support. So Bense and Athletics Director Dave Scott began a massive “do it yourself” project – raising the money and putting things into place. 

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Credit University of West Florida
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University of West Florida President Dr. Judy Bense chats with guests during the UWF 50th Anniversary Gala Wednesday, November 16, 2016 at the Hilton Pensacola Beach.

“The first thing we did was get the best football coach on the planet [Pete Shinnick] for this program,” said Bense. “The next thing we did is the recruiting. In this area, high school football is a big deal; we have the talent. And then, they built the Wahoos Stadium. It was a no-brainer.”

From the outset, Bense had do deal with critics and naysayers who claimed that football would ruin the UWF experience and degrade academics. But then came season two — 2017 — and the Argonauts’ unexpected trip to the Division II national championship game.

“I had so many people during the second season come up to me and say, ‘Judy, I’m so sorry,’” said Bense. “’We didn’t think you’d do it, we thought it would be a flop. We thought it was a PR stunt.’ And then they would give me a check. That season communicated to everyone that we can be an absolute winner.”

Judy Bense retired as president in 2016, but she’s still working. As mentioned, she’s in the process of writing her sixth book on archeology, this one focusing on the Spanish period from 1698, when Pensacola was incorporated as a city, to 1763. 

“Those were really the pioneers – the Spanish pioneers – in West Florida who came to stay,” Bense said. “Now, they only stayed for 65 years; there were four different locations – three on Pensacola Bay [and] one in St. Joe – and we have worked on them for 30 years.”

All responsible scholars reaching the end of their careers, contends Bense, should share their life’s work with the public if they’re able. And that’s what she’s doing with this book.

“It points the readers in Georgia, California, North Carolina – not [really] in the Southeast – to where they can learn more from these in-depth studies that we’ve all done,” Bense said. “The second thing, of course, I think I need to do is to put it in real English with lots of pictures to make a coffee table book out of it for the public.”

At 74, Judy Bense is not slowing down in retirement; the upcoming book is state’s evidence of that.

“You would think I would slow down, but I’m blessed with good health; I’m blessed with energy, and I like to work,” she said.