Pictured Above: In a happier moment, former Regional Chancellor Sophia Wisniewska (third from left) and USF System President Judy Genshaft (center, in green dress) posed in 2013 with (left to right) Roy Binger, USFSP Campus Board; Judy Mitchell, USFSP Campus Board; Bob Churuti, USFSP Campus Board; Stephanie Goforth, USF System Trustee; Debbie Sembler, former USFSP Campus Board Chair and USF System Trustee. Photo Courtesy of USFSP
By Nancy McCann and Timothy Fanning
When she left town the day before Hurricane Irma hit St. Petersburg, Sophia Wisniewska had no idea it would lead to her ouster and roil the university’s quest for stability and prestige.
Now the campus is riven by bewilderment and frustration as Interim Chancellor Martin Tadlock – who arrived just 14 months ago – works to settle jangled nerves and maintain what he called the “purposeful focus on students.”
For more than a week, there were unflattering national headlines, questions and rumors, campus forums and water cooler klatches – and no official explanations from USF system President Judy Genshaft, who let public records and subordinates speak for her.
Typical was the reaction of Jay Sokolovsky, a professor at USFSP 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.
Ironically, for all the predictions of calamity, the eye of the hurricane that forecasters said was bearing down on Tampa Bay as a Category 3 or 4 storm ended up passing 50 miles east of Tampa on the night of Sept. 10-11 as a Category 2 and 1.
But it was Wisniewska’s decisions during the days leading up to the hurricane that drew Genshaft’s ire.
On Wednesday, Sept. 6, the USF system canceled classes but left residence halls open while awaiting further hurricane forecasts. Documents indicate that Genshaft and Wisniewska then disagreed on whether and when the USFSP residence halls should be evacuated.
Wisniewska’s team wanted to order student evacuations on Sept. 7, but Genshaft countermanded that directive. Then when Genshaft shifted direction, Wisniewska waited until she got legal advice from the USF system to act.
Wisniewska said the last 10 students were gone by 10 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 9, and the campus was secure. Then she left St. Petersburg to drive to Atlanta without telling Genshaft.
Asked at 4:17 p.m. that day for a status report, Wisniewska responded by email at 11:18 p.m. that as she walked around campus, “I heard more birds chirping than students talking. The campus is very quiet.”
At 8:56 a.m. the next day (Sunday), Wisniewska emailed another status report about USFSP, adding this P.S.: “Last night, I arrived in Atlanta where I will stay the next two days.”
Forty-two minutes later, Genshaft’s chief of staff responded: “Are you in St. Pete?”
In a draft letter of “termination for cause” that was never finalized, Genshaft accused Wisniewska of creating “an intolerable safety risk to our students and the USFSP community.” She said the chancellor resisted her directive to evacuate students, then left the state “without first notifying this office or ensuring that a clear chain of command was in place.”
Wisniewska pushed back in a blunt response, and on Monday, Sept. 18, the two leaders signed a voluntary resignation agreement, effective immediately, in which Wisniewska also gives up her tenured faculty position on May 1, 2018.
“I was taken aback by insinuations that I was purposefully misleading people about my whereabouts when I evacuated to Atlanta,” Wisniewska told The Crow’s Nest later.
“I was on campus on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday” before evacuating on Saturday, she said. “I walked around the longest on Thursday, and the last time was Friday in the middle of the day. I should have said (in her Sept. 9 email to Genshaft) that I was describing the campus before I left …. I wish I had been more clear.”
The forced departure of Wisniewska made national news.
On a Washington Post website story that typified the coverage, the headline was: “This university leader fled Florida during Hurricane Irma. Now she has been ousted.”
“In times of crisis, leaders cannot abandon ship and be unclear about their whereabouts,” said the Tampa Bay Times in an editorial. “That is essentially what the leader of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg did with Hurricane Irma headed this way … USF president Judy Genshaft’s move to fire her was appropriate.”
Execution, not resignation
But on the campus that the popular Wisniewska had led for four years, much of the reaction had a different tone.
Confusion reigned as news broke in the Times on Sept. 16 that she had been sacked without a word of explanation from Genshaft, who – more than a week later – has still not discussed the move or come to St. Petersburg to meet with rattled faculty and administrators.
The St. Petersburg campus has labored in the shadow of the Tampa campus since the first students enrolled here in 1965. And as it has strived to gain recognition and purpose, it has endured a constant churn in leadership.
Fourteen people have led the campus – with titles varying from campus dean to chief executive officer to regional chancellor – since 1968. In Genshaft’s 17 years as USF president, St. Petersburg has had seven leaders.
Among some senior faculty at least, there is criticism that Genshaft routinely acts without consulting anybody in St. Petersburg and that USFSP made great strides in the four years under Wisniewska.
Raymond Arsenault, a professor of Southern history since 1980, said Wisniewska’s ouster was “more like an execution than a resignation.”
“When something like this happens, when you aren’t informed or consulted and it’s just a done deal, it’s shocking and disturbing,” he said.
“Sophia led by example – smart but humble, curious and decisive,” said Deni Elliott, chair of the Department of Journalism and Digital Communication, in a Crow’s Nest column. “She governed by giving stakeholders voice and making thoughtful decisions that synthesized the best that campus and community had to offer.”
Feelings were running high on Wednesday when a Crow’s Nest reporter showed up to cover a meeting between Tadlock and about a dozen senior faculty and administrators.
“Get him the heck out of here,” said one unidentified woman.
“Sunshine Law,” yelled back someone who wanted him to stay.
The reporter left at the polite request of Tadlock.
Powerful and well paid
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.
Her tenure has not been without controversy, however.
In 2001, she suspended and banned a Tampa-based computer science professor named Sami Al-Arian from campus amid controversy over allegations he supported terrorists. Civil libertarians criticized her for violating his right to free speech and some professors warned that she was violating his rights as a tenured professor.
Two years later, when Al-Arian was arrested on federal charges, Genshaft fired him. He later pleaded guilty to telling lies and committing non-violent acts to help terrorists and was deported.
More recently, in 2010, Genshaft fired the university’s founding football coach, the popular and successful Jim Leavitt, after USF investigators found that he had slapped a player.
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 enrollment 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, whose annual salary was $289,075, 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.
The university secured the two largest donations in its history, opened a new building for the College of Business, and inched higher in the national Best College Rankings of U.S. News & World Report. (In the category of top public universities in the South, USFSP is No. 24, behind the University of North Florida at No. 18.)
Wisniewska said Thursday she is “proud to have moved the needle on the ranking and visibility of our campus.”
“Where faculty and staff had previously described our school as ‘not USF Tampa’ and ‘not St. Pete College,’ we now speak of our distinctive identity,” said Elliott, the journalism chair, noting that USFSP is now the first-choice school of many bright applicants.
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 continued a public and private debate over 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?
This is the debate and the institution that Martin Tadlock inherits, at least for the next few months.
Although he has been an acting chancellor before – at Northeastern State University in Oklahoma – he has been at USFSP for only 14 months.
Much of the leadership team Tadlock now heads came aboard during Wisniewska’s tenure – the dean of students, the deans of the colleges of business and education, and several key administrators.
In forums with students, faculty and staff last week, Tadlock said the success of USFSP “is rooted in the work of many people here.”
He pledged to help continue that work as the university’s plans and priorities remain unchanged.
“While humbled to serve in this interim role,” he said, “I appreciate President Genshaft’s confidence in me and in all of us to build upon the incredible progress we have made here at USFSP.”
Information from the Tampa Bay Times and USF websites was used in this report.