By Timothy Fanning, Dinorah Prevost and Nancy McCann
Editor’s note: Shortly after this story was published, the real reason for Wisniewska’s ousting emerged. You can find that story here.
The new leader of the university assured students Monday that things will proceed smoothly in the months ahead, while professors and students expressed shock, dismay and confusion over the sudden sacking of Regional Chancellor Sophia Wisniewska last week.
In an afternoon forum attended by 27 students, faculty and staff, interim Regional Chancellor Martin Tadlock dismissed suggestions that Wisniewska was ousted because of university retention and graduation rates lagging behind Tampa. He also denied that Wisniewska’s efforts to help students stay on track and graduate in a timely fashion.
“This had nothing to do for with this decision. I don’t see that at all. I’m proud of our completion rate and it’s getting higher… We are doing a wonderful and good things here, and I am committed to that. So are the individuals that are part of our leadership team,” said Tadlock, who came to USF St. Petersburg as regional vice chancellor of academic affairs 14 months ago and now becomes the campus’ seventh boss in the last 15 years.
“I saw an email that she was being replaced and I wanted to understand what was the driver for that decision. Of course, we didn’t get that today,” said John Burney, a senior majoring in accounting. “The biggest thing that I took away was that the direction that (Wisniewska) started is something (Tadlock) is going to continue with. I didn’t see a big difference. He seems like the status quo and that he’s going to continue with that same direction with no major shifts. I think that’s a good thing in the short run.”
Burney came to the forum because he wanted to understand what happened.
“I just want to understand what’s going on. Is it a clamp down from Tampa, and are we beholden to the main campus? I see us as being more of a separate institution and I would like that to continue. I just worry about the circumstances behind losing her,” Burney said.
Meanwhile, the disruption that inevitably follows turnovers at the top was one of the concerns cited by professors surveyed by The Crow’s Nest.
Why was Wisniewska dismissed so abruptly, while the St. Petersburg campus community was still struggling to return to normal after Hurricane Irma, they wondered? Why were faculty and department chairs left in the dark? And why does USF system President Judy Genshaft continue to roil the campus with changes in its leadership?
Typical was the reaction of Jay Sokolovsky, a professor at USF ST. Petersburg since 1994 and chair of the Department of Anthropology
“I know from discussion with other senior faculty that there is concern over the repeated tendency for precipitous firing of the heads of our campus by Tampa administration and the replacement with interim administrators with little or no consultation with senior faculty,” he said.
In his work with Wisniewska, Sokolovsky said, “I came to greatly admire her administrative skills and intelligence in leading the campus. Having worked as a professor for over 40 years in two major university systems, I perceived her to be one of the stronger campus leaders I have worked with.”
“I am as surprised as everyone else and don’t have anything to add,” said Deni Elliott, chair of the Department of Journalism and Digital Communication.
“When I heard, I just sat there, really stunned,” said Raymond Arsenault, a professor of Southern history who has taught at USFSP since 1980. “It was very disappointing to see that a regional chancellor like Wisniewska … who really solidified important relations in the community and (was) accessible to faculty and staff, was just let go.”
It has always been difficult for St. Petersburg campus administrators “to run the campus, while also looking over their shoulders at (the university system headquarters in) Tampa,” Arsenault said.
“When you have unexpected firings and interim positions, it is not necessarily a catastrophe, but it can be,” Arsenault said. “The world of higher education is hard as much as it is, and you need a steady hand at the wheel and we had that. I think a lot of people felt like Wisniewska would be here for a decade. She had our fundraising back together; enrollments were good and going up. If the institution had been in trouble, you’d think there would be a warning. But since it happened so fast, and the reasoning is still on the level of rumors, people are just stunned and want answers. I think people are very anxious and this is not the kind of feeling you want in the middle of a semester.”
Genshaft, who was been president of the USF system since 2000, has declined to offer a public explanation for Wisniewska’s ouster, although her spokeswoman, Lara Wade, said the university system will probably issue comments in “the early part of this week.”
Two years after becoming president, Genshaft abruptly dismissed Bill Heller from his decade-long post as campus leader – a move she never adequately explained, in the view of many on campus and members of the St. Petersburg City Council.
Since then, the St. Petersburg campus has had six leaders, including Tadlock. None served longer than five years (Karen White, from 2003 to 2008), and four of them were interim, although one of the interims – Margaret Sullivan, who followed White – was eventually elevated to the post permanently.
Genshaft, the longest serving president in USF history, is powerful and well paid. She enjoys a good reputation with her bosses – the 13 members of the USF system’s Board of Trustees – and has a compensation package, including a base salary, performance-based stipends and benefits of more than $900,000, according to published reports.
In 2016, she was the second highest paid president of a public university in Florida, after W. Kent Fuchs at the University of Florida, according to the Tampa Bay Times. And in 2014, her compensation package made her the 12th highest paid public university president in the country, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
USF St. Petersburg is one of three campuses in the USF system overseen by Genshaft. The system serves nearly 50,000 students, with the vast majority on the Tampa campus. In 2016-2017, the St. Petersburg campus had 4,700 students and the Sarasota-Manatee campus had 2,100.
In recent years, the Tampa campus has grown in size and national stature as a research institution and powerful player in the state and Tampa Bay region.
Meanwhile, the St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee campuses have worked to refine their niches in the USF system.
Under Wisniewska, USFSP developed a five-year academic plan that reset the direction of the campus and updated its master plan, which anticipates a student body of 10,000 students by 2025.
There are plans for a third residence hall, which is tentatively scheduled to open in 2019; a new academic building for the teaching of science, technology, engineering and math; a new parking garage; and an expansion of the Student Life Center.
Meanwhile, faculty and administrators have publicly and privately debated the best role for the small but growing campus. Should it be primarily a teaching university? Or a school that tries to emphasize both teaching and research?
At the forum on Monday afternoon, Tadlock addressed some of those concerns, and assured the students and faculty present that he will continue Wisniewska’s vision.
“I don’t know the length of time that I will be serving,” Tadlock said. “I don’t anticipate adding any big changes. I don’t think that is my goal or position to do. There will be some small things to do to make things better, but those will be address as we learn what those things are.”
Tadlock did not address concerns of faculty and department chairs about being largely left in the dark.
“I can’t speak to that because, like I said earlier, when the decision to make the change at one of the regional campuses happen, it comes from the president’s office (Genshaft). There are a lot of things involved that I am not privy to,” Tadlock said.
Comments from USFSP professors, staff and students
Kathleen Gibson-Dee, mathematics instructor and quality enhancement plan director:
“I have the deepest respect for Dr. Tadlock, whom I know very well. I have worked with him since he started here, so I know he will do a great job. His is an incredibly dedicated and outstanding leader.
“We have so many really amazing and wonderful people here at USFSP, and we all care about our students, first, last and always. We have our strategic plan and master academic plan in place, so we keep moving forward together with those plans, always as a team.”
“Change can be hard and it is often unexpected, but when we come together as a community with a common purpose, we grow stronger, together.”
Deby Lee Cassill, associate professor of biological sciences:
“I am always grateful for the administrators who make the tough calls on budgets, programs and staffing so that I can focus on the things I do best … which is to teach and publish to the best of my abilities.”
She thanked Wisniewska “for her service to our students and our faculty. She created a community-based, strategic plan of growth. I hope it continues under our interim and new leadership. I will miss her smiling presence on our campus.”
Thomas Hallock, department chair of verbal and visual arts and associate professor of English
Hallock was saddened by Wisniewska’s abrupt departure.
“She identified a vision and a plan for USF St. Petersburg,” and hoped to see her execute it. He hopes that now that she’s gone, the plans she made will be continued.
Savannah Gibbs contributed to this reporting