By Nancy McCann
For four years, the president of the USF system applauded the performance of Regional Chancellor Sophia Wisniewska with positive evaluations and pay raises.
President Judy Genshaft praised Wisniewska for building a senior leadership team, meeting goals and working hard for “the success of USFSP.”
Documents in Wisniewska’s personnel file also show that Genshaft wanted the chancellor to be more rah-rah about the USF system, which comprises campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee.
She urged Wisniewska to be more “BULLISH” (the university system’s slogan for Bold, United, Leaders, Loyal, Impactful, Student-centric and High Quality), writing that she could begin with “simple things like getting a USF plate and attending (USF) system functions as a priority.”
In short, there is nothing in the personnel file to suggest that Wisniewska was in disfavor or in danger of losing her job.
Nothing, that is, until earlier this month, when Genshaft wrote a letter – never officially sent – that castigated Wisniewska, 65, for the way she handled Hurricane Irma.
Within days, Genshaft and the chancellor she had repeatedly praised had negotiated an abrupt resignation that left Wisniewska’s reputation in tatters and plunged the St. Petersburg campus into dismay and confusion.
As faculty admirers of Wisniewska noted in campus forums and interviews with The Crow’s Nest, the sudden fall of the chancellor was a wrenching turn in the career of an up-by-the-bootstraps woman and popular academic leader.
A statement written by Wisniewska in her 2013-2014 self-evaluation might offer a hint about the leadership qualities Genshaft said were glaringly lacking before, during and after Irma impacted the campus.
“I am the best as the overall conceptualist, strategist, planner, schemer and motivator. However, I am not the down-to-the-nitty-gritty implementer,” wrote Wisniewska. “Thus, I will need to strengthen my communication, especially with my academic, finance and operations officers, to ensure that things don’t fall through the cracks and that there are no surprises.”
Born in Poland, Wisniewska came to the United States at age 10, speaking no English. She said her mother told her father that “‘we needed a better life for this family.’”
Wisniewska’s father, an “old-fashioned custom tailor,” was the first to reach Philadelphia. Six months later, she arrived with her mother, two sisters and two brothers. There were originally six children in the family; an older brother died from typhus when he was 6.
They moved in with an “older, distant uncle who was lonely” and did not mind the intrusion of a big family.
In addition to mastering English – the fifth language in which she’s at least proficient – Wisniewska speaks Russian and said she “can do research” in German and French. She was the first in her family to graduate from college.
She became a teacher and scholar in Russian language and literature while building a career as an academic administrator, at Temple University Ambler and then Penn State Brandywine.
In 2012, Wisniewska and a friend hiked from Pittsburg to Philadelphia – nearly 300 miles – “to celebrate her love of Pennsylvania and the importance of a healthy lifestyle” and because she wanted to meet people who live in the small towns, according to a Brandywine blog.
She was at Penn State Brandywine when she caught the eye of the committee that was searching for a new chancellor at USF St. Petersburg.
References provided in 2013 during USFSP’s search for its next leader collectively portray Wisniewska as a likable, hardworking, energetic, intelligent and talented administrator.
Madlyn Hanes, vice president for Commonwealth Campuses of the Pennsylvania State University and Wisniewska’s boss at the time, told the search committee that Wisniewska “is continuing to learn and grow in her current chancellor role and that she will reach her full potential … at USF St. Petersburg.”
“She is forthright. She sees the big picture. She has a vision,” said Helene Bludman, Brandywine’s director of marketing and university relations. “She needs to get up to speed w/her social media. She needs to TWEET!”
“If you get her, we’ll lose a great chancellor,” said Ivan Esparragoza, a faculty member who was on Penn State Brandywine’s search committee when Wisniewska was hired. “She’s been pushing hard to make Brandywine into a better, residential college.”
Esparragoza gave her “high marks for integrity, ethical decision making, and consensus building.”
Wisniewska arrived in St. Petersburg in the summer of 2013 as the small university along the city’s beautiful waterfront was striving to escape the long shadow of the main USF campus in Tampa.
In a September 2014 letter evaluating Wisniewska’s first year as regional chancellor, USF system President Judy Genshaft thanked Wisniewska for doing “a tremendous job bringing stability to your senior leadership team.”
In the next year’s evaluation, Genshaft told Wisniewska she was “pleased with the fulfillment of a majority of your 2014-2015 goals.”
“I see many positives and hard work dedicated to the success of USFSP,” wrote Genshaft in July 2016, toward the end of Wisniewska’s third year. “I now look forward to your greater attention on a broader USF system perspective.”
During her stint as regional chancellor, Wisniewska told The Crow’s Nest, she met monthly with Genshaft at the Seasons 52 restaurant in Tampa for a “lengthy lunch” and spoke to her by phone between those meetings if necessary.
“I looked forward to the luncheon sessions; I always brought a list of requests and things to discuss,” she said. “We had differences of opinion, but the discussions were very pleasant.”
One of the accomplishments that Genshaft cited in her evaluations was Wisniewska’s role in securing a $10 million donation – the largest gift in USFSP history – from philanthropist Kate Tiedemann in 2014.
The College of Business is named for Tiedemann, an entrepreneur who founded and later sold a surgical instrument company before retiring to Pinellas County.
Like Wisniewska, Tiedemann immigrated to this county as a girl. Like Wisniewska, she was poor and did not speak English but became a success story by dint of determination and hard work.
When Wisniewska was asked if she thinks the life history she shares with Tiedemann – a fellow immigrant-turned-great achiever – influenced Tiedemann’s large donation, she responded:
“While Kate and I share parallels in our personal lives, I believe she was drawn to our vision for the college and the university. Though we formed an immediate bond, perhaps in part because of our immigrant history, it was the faculty, staff, and students who won her over.”
Above image: Sophia Wisniewska in a 2016 staff photo. Courtesy of USF St. Petersburg