Reflective but emphatic, ousted chancellor says she would never jeopardize students’ safety
By Nancy McCann
Confident that all students had evacuated and campus preparations for Hurricane Irma were complete, Regional Chancellor Sophia Wisniewska left St. Petersburg on Saturday, Sept. 9, to escape the potential fury of the storm.
She returned three days later to the wrath of USF system President Judy Genshaft.
In a scorching letter that was never officially sent, Genshaft wrote she was firing Wisniewska for her “lack of leadership” in handling Irma preparations and creating “an intolerable safety risk to our students and the USFSP community.”
But when Wisniewska pushed back in an equally blunt written response, the two leaders eventually agreed to a settlement – signed Monday – that let Wisniewska resign with 20 weeks’ severance pay, accrued leave and a nine-month appointment to an online teaching and research assignment off campus for the spring 2018 semester.
“The campus community is my life; I would do nothing to hurt them,” a reflective Wisniewska said Tuesday in an interview at her home. “The suggestion that I would put students in danger is simply not true. The fact is, I was the first to be looking out for the safety of the students.”
Genshaft said Wisniewska did not act promptly when told to evacuate the USFSP residence halls on Friday, Sept. 8.
But two days earlier, Wisniewska said, Genshaft had rejected a recommendation by the St. Petersburg campus’ emergency response team to be cautious and evacuate the two residence halls.
By 3 p.m. that day, she said, the USF system issued “nothing at all about our residence halls. We were getting calls from parents – ‘What should we do? Should I come get our daughter?’“
Wisniewska said she followed through with an announcement to students explaining Genshaft’s directive that the residence halls, located in evacuation zone B, would be evacuated only if it became mandatory.
As Irma’s trajectory changed, Genshaft’s position shifted.
“On Friday at 8 p.m., Cindy Visot (Genshaft’s chief of staff) called with the request to close the residence halls,” said Wisniewska. “Ten students were still there. Because they were not under a mandatory evacuation, I knew I might be getting some pushback. I asked Gerard Solis (USF general counsel) for his opinion. Based on the advice from Solis, we told students they needed to be out by 8 a.m. Saturday, and they were gone by that time.”
All the students had left the residence halls before she departed for Atlanta with friends, Wisniewska said.
She let Genshaft know by email Sunday morning that she was in Atlanta.
“I probably should have written on Saturday that I was in Atlanta – live and learn,” said Wisniewska. “I was aware of no requirement that I had to stay. I was in communication and checking on things; that’s what I was thinking about.”
Wisniewska said she had a conference call with her top administrators on Monday, Sept. 11, for an assessment after the storm and “thought things couldn’t have gone smoother.”
So “it was shocking,” she said, when she learned Genshaft wanted to fire her.
The forced resignation of the popular regional chancellor – and the way it was handled by Genshaft and her team in Tampa – has prompted dismay and criticism on the St. Petersburg campus.
But Wisniewska, who began in July 2013 with an annual salary of $265,000 and after four years was making $289, 075, said she is resigned to the outcome.
“I signed an agreement; I work at the pleasure of the president,” she said. “There’s no going back.”
Wisniewska said she has a favor to ask the campus community:
“Please give all the support you can to (Interim Regional Chancellor) Martin Tadlock and help him do the best he can,” she said.
Wisniewska said she will “let this storm subside” before thinking about what’s next.
“I loved my job. I love the people,” she said. “I miss them already.”
Above photo courtesy of WUSF.