UWF President and Archaeologist: Dr. Judy Bense

Name: Judith Bense

Hometown: Panama City

Title: President of the University of West Florida

Dr. Judy Bense is not the typical university president. She hails from a background in archaeology and has served as the first female president of the University of West Florida for eight years. Fall 2016 will be her last semester as the university’s president.

However, Bense didn’t come to UWF hoping to one day be its president. Bense is an archaeologist and the one who founded and grew the archaeology and anthropology program at UWF.

When Bense arrived, no one intended to do anything with archaeology. She says the path through growing the department taught her to handle problems and manage money, which would be an important skillset for her role as university president. For the first 25 years Bense taught as a professor, conducted research, and worked as one of the administrators of the program.

The last three years she focused on being the head administrator of archaeology and anthropology. Bense was unexpectedly asked to step in as an interim president while they sought out a replacement. Though she was shocked to have received the offer, she agreed to serve for nine months as they searched for a new president back in 2008.

She became the replacement.

“The only thing I was before president was an archaeologist. I, as well as everyone else, wondered how I would do.” Bense said.

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Being UWF’s president includes representing the university, taking responsibility to carry out the policies of the board of governors and board of trustees, and managing a university with about 12,500 students, 3,000 employees, and 400 faculty.

Bense has been at UWF since the 80s and has seen the evolution of the institution. Before, the school’s student body consisted of solely upperclassmen. The only dorms were the Southsides, or what Bense calls the “pizza hut dorms.” During the mid-80s, they began to accept freshmen and sophomores.

Ultimately, she says UWF went from an upper division and commuter school to a real university with Greek life, residence halls, student life, and now, a football team.

Most importantly, she says UWF is more a part of the Pensacola community than ever.

For years, Bense saw that UWF was isolated from the community, and the decision makers at the time liked it that way. Since she stepped into her role in public archaeology and position as president, UWF has increased its engagement with the community.

“I am an atypical president [because of] my attitude, my community relations. This (Pensacola) is my home. I have always been an optimist, and those are a bit different than what I call a professional president who can come from the outside.” Bense says.

When asked who she thought an Argo was, Bense replied, “A University of West Florida student who has pride in the university.”

She finds that pride to be an integral part of student life. One way she is bringing it to campus is through the UWF Football team through a grant to fund the program. She wants to bring college football to North West Florida, but more importantly give the community and students something to enjoy.

Her involvement with the student body has been evident in her attendance at the many events on campus.

“My philosophy, is not typical. I was never a dean, was never a vice president or a provost. I carry my philosophy of students first. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the students,” Bense said.

She also wouldn’t be where she is today if it wasn’t for her family. Bense grew up in Panama City after moving from New Jersey. Her family was of modest means but knew about hard work, excellence and recovering from bad luck.

The most influential person in Bense’s life has been her mother. She was relentless in pursuing excellence and always told her and her brothers that anyone could give up, but not them.

Bense still doesn’t give up, though her time as president has been a combination of both highs and lows.

Her biggest struggle as university president was dealing with the recession and the performance metric system that is not well-suited for a mid-sized public institution like UWF. She winced while describing the process of deciding what programs had to go when the necessary budget cuts had to be made.

On the flip side, Bense says that being university president has been the greatest compliment and privilege of her life.

“[It has] been a position that I take as a service position to the university. I took it to make it better in some tough times. I have great pride that I’ve had this position. My approach has been in service and to help grow student life. Being a commuter school is difficult and we need to be more than that,” Bense says.  

After the fall semester is over, she will step down as president and take a one-year sabbatical to rest and make the transition. But, UWF is still very much a part of her future. She’ll come back as a research professor and finish the arcaheolgical book on Spanish settlements in Pensacola that got interrupted eight years ago when she became interim president.

Bense keeps busy serving the university, but in her free time, she helps keep up two hay farms with her brother, one in Panama City and the other in Chipley.

She can also be found in the woodworking shop at her residence crafting furniture.

When at UWF, the library Starbucks is a favorite place for Bense, but she really loves the nature trail that can be seen just outside her office window.