Genshaft and Wisniewska sparred before forced departure of regional chancellor
Here are some of the key documents released by the USF system on Sept. 18 in response to a public records request by The Crow’s Nest.
This is the draft of an undated letter from USF system President Judy Genshaft to USFSP Regional Chancellor Sophia Wisniewska. It is titled Termination for Cause:
Dear Dr. Wisniewska:
I am writing to express my profound disappointment with your lack of leadership in response to hurricane Irma. Your conduct created an intolerable safety risk to our students and the USFSP community. Therefore the University of South Florida (“USF” or “University”) hereby terminates your employment for cause from the Position of Regional Vice Chancellor for the University South Florida St. Petersburg institution. This action is effective immediately.
Statement of Just Cause
Your first responsibility as the Regional Chancellor of USFSP is to use your best judgment, knowledge and abilities to limit safety risks to our students, faculty and staff. 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. Incompetence, as stated in USF Regulation 10.212, is a basis for discipline up to and including dismissal; therefore your dismissal for incompetence is taken with just cause under USF Regulations. The specific and independent grounds for this action are presented in more details in Sections 2 and 3 of this letter.
You failed to promptly reassess the safety of students in residence halls at USFSP despite clear risk indications and you resisted a directive from the USF System President’s Office to evacuate the students in light of the deteriorating situation.
On September 6, 2017, I made clear that the USF System was cancelling classes and switching to only essential operations to permit students, faculty and staff to make their own needed preparations for the storm. At that time all residence halls remained open since the students were not perceived to be in danger given the hurricane’s forecasted track. 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. The Tampa Campus, unlike other USF System Institution campuses, is inland and is a designated county shelter site, and in fact two shelters were opened on the Tampa campus for the duration of the storm. Many USFSP and USFSM students chose to ride out the storm on the Tampa campus.
However, by late in the day on September 7, 2017, the forecast had changed and the hurricane shifted to create a reasonable risk to the students in the residence halls at USFSP. I expect a competent Regional Chancellor to be able to process this weather information and respond to the evolving emergency. Instead, you did not take affirmative steps to close and evacuate the residence halls at USFSP until after 8:00 PM on September 8, 2017, which effectively delayed the evacuations until September 9, 2017. It is especially troubling that you failed to act even as the facts on the ground should have caused you to reassess the safety of our students in residence halls, such as: (a) Governor Scott’s closure of all state universities on September 7, 2017; and (b) the best available forecasts placed the hurricane further west and closer to the USFSP waterfront campus.
Not only did you fail to reassess and respond to the worsening situation, but on September 8, 2017 you were unwilling to take action to close and evacuate the residence halls even when given specific direction from this office to do so. In fact, you refused to take the necessary steps to evacuate our students until you received a written legal opinion stating you had the legal authority to do so.
To be clear, the University always seeks to operate in a lawful manner. However, the issue here is not legal authority; it is leadership competence in an emergency situation. It should be basic knowledge to the Regional Chancellor entrusted with the safety of our students that you may lawfully act to protect the safety of our residential students when the best information recommends action. 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.
You evacuated the state without alerting the USF System President and ensuring that all essential staff were in place for the emergency.
You evacuated the state without first notifying this office or ensuring that a clear chain of command was in place. Moreover, you did not confirm that USFSP’s credentialed emergency operations manager and communications director were either on duty or that these critical functions were properly transitioned. No one is expected to remain vulnerable in a dangerous situation, but it is expected that the Regional Chancellor will recognize that a clear chain of command must be established and that emergency operations and communications expertise are vital before, during and after a natural disaster. At a minimum, I would have expected you to make sure that these essential emergency and communications functions were seamlessly transitioned to other USF System offices before leaving the state. Unfortunately, none of these basic steps were taken. At the USF System level we did not learn that your credentialed emergency operations manager evacuated the state until September 10, 2017. Your communications professional was unavailable as late as September 11, 2017. As a result, these responsibilities had to be transitioned to other USF System offices in an unplanned manner that needlessly created a safety risk.
Effect of Dismissal on Tenured Position
Given that your removal from the position of Regional Chancellor is for cause you are not entitled to the sixty day notice period prior to removal or the severance payment described in your offer letter of March 19, 2013 (“Offer”). You will retain your tenured faculty position in the Department of Society, Culture and Language at USFSP. As a nine month faculty member you cannot maintain or accrue annual leave so any accrued leave balance will be paid out at your current compensation as provided in USF Regulations and Policies. However, as of the date of this letter, your compensation will be adjusted to a nine month faculty appointment per USF Regulation 10.103.
Your assignment for the remainder of the semester will be to prepare for a regular faculty teaching and research appointment at USFSP beginning in 2018. The date of your return to faculty duties will be determined by the Regional Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at USFSP in consultation with the Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at USFSP.
Please contact Denelta Adderley-PIenry, Associate Director of Human Resources, to coordinate a mutually agreeable time to return all USF property not essential to your faculty assignment and to collect your property from your USFSP office. Ms. Adderley Flenry may be contacted at: (727)873-4838 (w), (727)873-4164 (f), or email to: email@example.com.
Your Offer describes a mediation and arbitration process to address any “controversy or claim based upon the alleged breach of any legal right relating to or arising from your employment and/or termination of your employment….” Please refer to your Offer for available remedies to challenge this action. You may not otherwise grieve this action under the processes contained in USF System Regulations.
Judy L. Genshaft
This is a Sept. 15 letter from Wisniewska to Gerard Solis, the USF system’s general counsel:
Dear Mr. Solis:
This document is a response to two assertions made by University of South Florida President Judith Genshaft regarding handling of the USFSP preparation for Hurricane Irma. Please allow me to refute the premise and conclusions reached and I firmly believe that there was no misconduct, let alone misconduct arising to the level of termination. I will respond to each assertion in order.
Assertion: That I failed to promptly reassess the safety of students in residence halls at USFSP despite clear risk implications and I resisted a directive from the USF System President to evacuate the students in light of the deteriorating forecast.
Here are the facts. On Wednesday, September 6 at 9:30 a.m., I met with the Cabinet (first line staff and deans) to prepare for the possibility of Hurricane Irma coming to St. Petersburg. Police Chief David Hendry, who serves as the institution’s emergency management director, gave an overview of the preparations and weather conditions. At 10:00 a.m., the Cabinet was joined via conference call with President Genshaft and other individuals from Tampa and Sarasota Campuses. A decision was made to close the St. Petersburg campus Thursday, September 7 through Monday, September 11. USF Tampa agreed to prepare the appropriate communication piece to inform the students, faculty, staff and community.
On Wednesday, September 6 at 2:00 pm, Chief Hendry hosted a meeting of the USFSP Emergency Response Team (the GOLD team), which includes Facilities, IT, Housing, PIO, CMS/MSL, Dean of Students, UPD, Parking, RVC for Finance, and USF Tampa EM Representative. Given the change in the weather forecast, the movement of the hurricane more westward into Florida, and the mandatory evacuation of Zone A (classroom buildings, library, wellness center), the Gold Team addressed emergency plans for Facilities, IT, Communications and Residence Hall evacuation. Though the residence halls are in Zone B, which was not under evacuation, due to the weather concerns and proximity of housing – USC is less than 400 feet from the water – a decision was made at the Gold Team meeting to close the residence halls on Thursday, September 7. The USFSP team believed that it was a prudent decision to ensure the safety of the students. The Gold Team meeting also included a representative from Tampa, who did not oppose the decision. The draft communique from USFSP Communications for the USF President to send regarding the university and the hurricane included language that the USFSP residence halls would close on Thursday, September 7.
Later in the day, on Wednesday, September 6, I received a telephone call from the President’s Chief of Staff, Cynthia Visot, who indicated that the residence halls could not be closed without an evacuation order, thus the decision to close the residence halls was rejected by President Genshaft and the USFSP residence halls would not close. Language regarding the USFSP residence halls was deleted from the communique for the USF President to send. Later, the USFSP Communications Director, Jessica Blais, drafted a statement for the web and future communiques, indicating that the residence halls at USFSP would not close until there was a mandatory evacuation. I believe that I was looking out for the safety of the students initially by requesting closure of all residence halls, but I was overruled by system President Genshaft. As late as Thursday, September 7, at 10:38 p.m., President Genshaft communicated in an email weather update that USFSP residence halls will remain open pending a mandatory evacuation.
On Friday, September 8 at 8 pm, the President’s Chief of Staff, Cynthia Visot, contacted me and directed me to close the residence halls. Based upon the President countermanding her decision two days earlier and the prior day’s communication from the President that the USF residence halls would remain open, I indicated that there was no mandatory evacuation order for Zone B. The Chief of Staff informed her (me) that everything had changed. I explained to her that students were following the website, some would resist leaving, and in order to make this work, I wanted some legal guidance to provide to any student who resisted leaving. The legal advice from Gerard Solis came quickly, within thirty minutes. Because it was evening the emergency personnel concluded that the students would need to leave early (8:00 am) the following morning to avoid the confusion of forcing students to depart in the dark. Concurrently, the Police Chief and Dean of Students were going room by room to advise students they would be required to leave early the following morning as the residence halls would close by noon. At this point, ten students were living in the residence halls. The mandatory evacuation was issued on September 9 at 10am and we at USFSP were in compliance with the directions of the county’s emergency management.
These are the facts of the situation, easily verified by email documentation. These facts demonstrate that I initially wanted to close all halls to protect the students, that my decision was countermanded by the USF President in her attempt to have an earlier evacuation, and later, when the USF President decided that an evacuation was in order, that I complied and all students were evacuated and safe.
Assertion: You evacuated the state without alerting the USF System President and ensuring that all essential staff were in place for the emergency.
On Saturday September 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, September 9.
On Sunday, September 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 September 10, I received regular reports from her (my) 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.
Essential staff was in place and I was in contact with them throughout the storm. The credentialed emergency operations manager at USFSP is the Chief of Police, David Hendry, and he was on campus during the emergency, not elsewhere as it was erroneously stated.
Jessica Blais, USFSP Communications Director, was in close contact with Chief Hendry and leadership team members from Tuesday, September 5 until approximately 9:00 p.m. on Sunday, September 10, when Hurricane Irma caused power outages and disrupted AT&T service and internet connections in Western Pinellas County. Messages crafted and emailed by the USF System Communications team were posted on the USFSP website and USFSP social media channels by Patrick Baxter, Assistant Director of Digital Communications. Both Jessica and Patrick are longtime members of the GOLD team and have worked closely with Chief Hendry on numerous weather events.
Jessica returned to campus on Tuesday morning, September 12, to meet with Chief Hendry and send a note to the Campus Community from the Chancellor, which provided general information about how the campus had fared and related the timeframe in which faculty, staff and students were to return to campus. The message included a reminder for people to check university websites for official System information.
There was a period of time on Monday when Jessica’s connectivity was impaired which is a typical occurrence during storms. I and USF team members coordinated with Jessica’s direct supervisor, Holly Kickliter. Holly had evacuated to Alabama and thus was reachable.
Patrick, who also lives in Pinellas County, traveled to a location near a Police Station cell tower to post, after he, too, had lost all connectivity. From there, he was able to post messages to the website and social media, although because he was required to travel (at times when all advisories suggested not to) there was a delay in a message that was to be posted to the website late on Monday evening. The message, which had been emailed to all faculty, staff and students by the System on Monday, was posted to the USFSP site early on Tuesday.
Throughout all of this, I was in communication with and leading the staff. It is not uncommon in severe weather events for a message to be delayed because of obstacles in the path of staff members, such as lack of power or internet, or road hazards. The staff made great effort to fulfill their responsibilities in spite of the obstacles. While in Atlanta, I held a telephone conference with the Cabinet to discuss damage from the storm. Over 80 emails were sent to the USFSP campus community about the hurricane. A review of Jessica Blais’s phone and text log shows nearly 40 calls and texts about the storm between September 5 and 12.
On Tuesday, September 12, I chartered a private plane so I could return to Florida as soon as possible. Upon return, she (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.
Sophia T. Wisniewska
These are excerpts from a Sept. 18 document titled Voluntary Resignation Agreement and General Release between the University of South Florida Board of Trustees and Dr. Sophia Wisniewska:
This Voluntary Resignation and General Release (“Release”) between The University of South Florida Board of Trustees (“USF” or “University”) and Dr. Sophia Wisniewska (“Dr. Wisniewska”) is intended to confirm the details of Dr. Wisniewska’s voluntary resignation from USF. Dr. Wisniewska and USF have reduced their understandings to writing to avoid any confusion or uncertainty regarding Dr. Wisniewska’s resignation from USF. By entering into this Agreement, neither USF nor Dr. Wisniewska allege or admit any wrongdoing on the part of the other. Therefore, in exchange for the mutual promises contained below, USF and Dr. Wisniewska agree as follows.
Resignation: Dr. Wisniewska will tender an irrevocable, voluntary resignation effective September 18, 2017 (“Resignation Date”). This resignation is for the position of Regional Vice Chancellor [sic) of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg (“USFSP”) Institution. USF hereby accepts Dr. Wisniewska’s resignation.
Dr. Wisniewska also irrevocably and voluntarily resigns her tenured faculty position in the Department of Society, Culture and Language at USFSP effective May 1, 2018. Consistent with Dr. Wisniewska’s March 19, 2013 Offer Letter, her current compensation will remain in place for 60 (sixty) days from the Resignation Date. After the 60 day period, Dr. Wisniewska’s compensation will be adjusted to a nine month faculty appointment per USF Regulation 10.103. Her assignment for the remainder of fall semester 2017 shall consist of off campus professional development leave to prepare for a return to an online teaching and research assignment at USFSP in Spring 2018. Dr. Wisniewska’s assignment for spring semester 2018 shall be entirely off campus, teaching online and/or research.
Dr. Wisniewska’s employment will be governed by the terms of this Agreement and USF’s Regulations and Policies.
Should Dr. Wisniewska accept full-time paid employment with another entity during the professional development leave or spring 2018 semester, then all USF employment and compensation shall cease as of the date she begins to perform full time employment services for that entity, other than the 20 weeks severance and annual leave payout. Activity other than full time paid employment shall not constitute employment with another entity for the purpose of this paragraph.
Response to Inquiries: To the extent Dr. Wisniewska refers references requests from a prospective future employer to the USF System President, USF will respond only that: (a) Dr. Wisniewska voluntarily resigned from the Regional Chancellor Position on September 18, 2017; and (b) that USF’s practice is to offer evaluations as public records; (c) confirm compensation and dates of employment.
Subject to Paragraph 12 of this Agreement, both the USF System President and Dr. Wisniewska agree to refrain from professionally derogatory comments regarding USF and each other, including but not limited to comments that could reasonably affect employability and professional standing.
Severance: Consistent with Dr. Wisniewska’s March 19, 2013 Offer Letter, USF shall tender to Dr. Wisniewska the liquidated equivalent of 20 (twenty) weeks of Dr. Wisniewska’s 12 month salary excluding benefits …..
Accrued Leave: Based on the Resignation Date, USF shall pay out Dr. Wisniewska’s accrued annual leave as required by USF Regulations and Policies …..
Consultation: Dr. Wisniewska acknowledges that prior to signing this Agreement, Dr. Wisniewska was given the opportunity to consult an attorney of Dr. Wisniewska’s choosing concerning the effect and meaning of the individual provisions of the Agreement, and that Dr. Wisniewska is herein advised in writing to do so.
THE UNDERSIGNED STATE THAT THEY HAVE CAREFULLY READ THIS AGREEMENT AND KNOW AND UNDERSTAND THE CONTENTS, AND THAT THEY EXECUTED THE SAME KNOWINGLY AND VOLUNTARILY.
Sophia T. Wisniewska
Caption from the image above: In happier times, Judy Genshaft (left) and Sophia Wisniewska pose together for a College of Business event last year.