Home Campus in Crisis Wisniewska forced out over handling of Irma evacuations

Wisniewska forced out over handling of Irma evacuations

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By Timothy Fanning and Nancy McCann

Dan Marshall (left) and Sophia T. Wisniewska (right) at the opening of The Edge early this month.

Sophia Wisniewska, who was abruptly ousted as regional chancellor, was pushed out for her handling of the evacuation of the university in the days before Hurricane Irma.

In a three-page draft letter from Judy Genshaft, the USF system president expressed her “profound disappointment” with Wisniewska’s “lack of leadership in response to Hurricane Irma.”

Wisniewska evacuated to Atlanta on Saturday night, the day before Irma was expected to arrive, according to documents. Two days later, she chartered a private plane to return to campus.

According to an undated draft letter from Genshaft, Wisniewska failed to promptly reassess the safety of students in residence halls, despite clear risk indications given by Genshaft’s office.

Wisniewska evacuated the state without first notifying the USF system office or ensuring that a clear chain of command was in place, according to Genshaft. Wisniewska also did not confirm that USFSP emergency operation managers and communications director were either on duty or that these critical functions were properly transitioned, Genshaft wrote.

Documents in Wisniewska’s personnel file don’t include a final copy of the letter. Instead, documents show she was allowed to resign Monday.

In the resignation agreement, Wisniewska resigned as regional chancellor and as a tenured faculty member. She will receive 20 weeks of severance pay and her accrued annual leave.

The university will not be issuing an official statement with details about Wisniewska’s departure beyond the public documents that have been released, said Lara Wade, Genshaft’s spokeswoman.

Excerpts from undated draft letter Genshaft wrote to Wisniewska

On Sept. 6, Genshaft directed the USF system to cancel classes and switch to only essential operations to permit students, faculty and staff to “make their own needed preparations for the storm.”

Students were not perceived to be in danger at that time and all residence halls remained open.

“Nonetheless, we opened the Tampa campus to all of our residential students from across the USF System who wished to be evacuated to a safe area.”

On Sept. 7, the Irma forecast changed, shifting the course of the hurricane to the St. Petersburg area, creating a reasonable risk to the students in the residence halls.

The regional chancellor did not take “affirmative steps to close and evacuate the residence halls until 8 p.m. Sept. 8, which delayed evacuations until the following day,” according to the letter.

“Not only did you fail to reassess and respond to the worsening situation, but on Sept. 8, you were unwilling to take action to close and evacuate the residence halls even when given specific direction from this office to do so,” Genshaft said.

“It should be basic knowledge to the regional chancellor entrusted with the safety of our students that you lawfully act to protect the safety of our residential students when the best information recommends action,” Genshaft said. “If you were unclear about your authority to protect our students heading into a major hurricane, then you should have proactively raised and resolved the ambiguity in advance of the emergency.”

“Your performance during Hurricane Irma revealed that you did not exercise, or do not have, the requisite level of competence to perform this essential function of the Regional Chancellor position,” she said.

Excerpts from Sept. 15 letter from Wisniewska to Gerard Solis, USF’s general counsel

“Please allow me to refute the premise and conclusions (in the draft letter) and I firmly believe that there was no misconduct, let alone misconduct arising to the level of termination,” Wisniewska said.

“On Saturday Sept. 9, after ensuring that the residence halls were closed, that the emergency management team had clear direction, and essential safety and facilities staff were in place, I realized that my personal plans for the hurricane were no longer realistic given the path of the storm and the danger of storm surges. Given the storm’s anticipated trajectory, I chose to go to Atlanta on the evening of Saturday, Sept. 9.”

“On Sunday, Sept. 10 at 8:58 a.m., I sent an email to President Genshaft, her Chief of Staff, Cynthia Visot, the university attorney, Gerard Solis, and the Regional Chancellor of Sarasota-Manatee, Terry Osborn, to give them an update on the state of the campus and to inform them of my location and the intention to stay two days.”

“During the remainder of Sept. 10, I received regular reports from her emergency management team in St. Petersburg, along with reports from a representative from Duke Energy. I had my finger on the pulse of the campus through the storm and as it weakened.”

“On Tuesday, Sept. 12, I chartered a private plane so I could return to Florida as soon as possible. Upon return, (I) emailed the faculty, staff and students that there was no damage and provided information on reopening the campus and resuming classes.”

“Given the facts and explanation provided above, there is no absolutely no credence to the assertions made that I failed to assess the safety risks nor that I resisted the President’s directions and left the state without assuring that all safety measures were in place. The actual facts are that I exercised sound judgment at all times, led my team successfully, communicated continuously, and, most importantly, put the safety of the students first—requesting they be evacuated even prior to the USF President agreed to an evacuation of all residence halls.

“There is no justification for these assertions made against me nor is there any valid basis for removing me from my position as Chancellor of USFSP. I look forward to attempting to resolve these matters with you.”

Three days later, on Monday, Wisniewska resigned.

 


This is a developing story. More will be updated as information comes in.

 

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