She was in Mexico when she learned that the University of West Florida was losing its president.
“I thought, ‘Aw, man, I’m gonna have to break in a new president and educate him about archeology,” recalled Dr. Judy Bense.
But the founder of UWF’s archeology and anthropology programs soon learned that her peers wanted her to take the helm as the university’s interim president. She wasn’t interested.
“I was in Veracruz, digging,” Bense said. “The archeology was fantastic.”
Already on the downhill side of a formative career in archeology and academia, she wasn’t sure the presidency was for her. Bense wasn’t searching for a new direction.
“All my life I’d been pretty narrow and pretty deep in archeology,” she said. “I’d always had the Lucille Ball approach to life: don’t mess with success, stick with what you’re good at.”
Eventually Bense was persuaded to take the helm on an interim basis. Soon enough, she’d be talked into sticking around until 2015.
During her time in the president’s office, Bense has not been shy about carving out an era for herself. She has consistently steered the school on a progressive course—a course that will undoubtedly change the face of UWF, and ultimately Pensacola.
By definition, a university president wields a good amount of influence and power in a community. The responsibility of such power does not escape Bense.
“I’ve thought a lot about that,” she said, seated in her office. “I think it has to be used carefully.”
Thus far, Bense has used her position of power and influence to steer UWF toward massive expansions. She’s spearheaded plans to aggressively capitalize on previously untapped or unimagined assets.
“There were some things I felt the university had not done,” Bense explained. “We were always the smallest—and in the university world size matters.”
The president wanted to shake UWF’s “commuter school” image and become more of a regional powerhouse. This wasn’t a new sentiment. Bense had heard the grumblings for a while.
“You know, ‘Why aren’t you doing more?’” she said. “‘Why hasn’t the university done anything? You’ve just sat up there in the woods.’”
People aren’t saying that anymore. These days, people sit back and mull over one grand plan after another that’s coming out of the president’s office.
Earlier this year, Bense announced that the university was looking to grow. There are plans for student housing, a football stadium, a student center and commercial ventures. There has been talk of purchasing the Scenic Hills Country Club and developing property on Pensacola Beach.
More recently, Bense and UWF have announced a desire to focus on Pensacola’s downtown historical district. The university already operates the area’s historical village, located near Seville Square, and believes the city is ripe for heritage tourism.
Bense refers to Pensacola’s relatively unknown historical significance as one of the area’s “best kept secrets.” She refers to UWF the same way.
“I’m tired of best-kept secrets,” Bense said.
If the university president is successful in fostering a more thriving history-based experience in the area it would represent somewhat of a circular journey. Bense spent years digging up downtown Pensacola to learn about the region’s past.
Growing up in Panama City, Fla., Bense gained an appreciation for history early on. She points to her history teacher—a Bay County High School baseball coach—as an early mentor.
“He really inspired a lot of us,” Bense said, explaining that there are nine archeologists among her old classmates. “The only thing we have in common is that teacher.”
As much as Bense enjoys history, she spends most of her time now looking to the future. The president maps out her remaining years at UWF and wonders if she’ll sunset quietly upon retirement or remain the influential fireball she is today.
“The real answer is: I don’t know,” Bense said. “If I can do some good, if it’s fun, if it’s challenging—you bet.”