By Michael Moore Jr.
A national search to find a new regional chancellor will begin next August, 11 months after Sophia Wisniewksa was ousted for the way she handled Hurricane Irma.
That announcement came Friday as USF system President Judy Genshaft broke a silence of nearly three weeks and met with faculty, staff and students on a campus that is still absorbing the after-shocks of Wisniewska’s abrupt departure.
Genshaft stressed that she acted because student safety is paramount – a reference to Wisniewska’s decision to leave town the day before the hurricane was expected to hit the Tampa Bay area.
She said she consulted others before taking action, denied that she has acted unilaterally on issues important to the St. Petersburg campus, and stressed that key initiatives on campus will proceed apace.
“You’re not a campus in crisis,” said Genshaft in an apparent reference to a Crow’s Nest headline on Sept. 25. “(I) never, ever, ever thought this to be a campus in crisis whatsoever. We have really good leadership” in St. Petersburg.
Genshaft first met privately with a group of senior professors. Then she spoke to a forum of faculty and staff that drew about a hundred people, followed by a meeting with a handful of students.
Her comments dominated the three sessions, leaving little time for questions. But some of the questions she did field were pointed, and some senior professors said later she did little to address their concerns.
Asked to respond to often-voiced criticism that she has repeatedly made decisions about St. Petersburg without consulting campus leaders, she denied it.
“On a truth-o-meter (that) is false, false, false,” she said, citing a tool that PolitiFact – the fact-checking arm of the Tampa Bay Times – uses in its reports.
“I did a lot of consulting (before dismissing Wisniewska),” she said. “I talked to every single (St. Petersburg) Campus Board member. I talked to every single (USF system) Board of Trustee member during and following Hurricane Irma. I did a lot of consulting with the (state) Board of Governors as well as the (education) chancellor of the state.”
Asked if she consulted anyone on the St. Petersburg campus, Genshaft said she did. But she declined to mention any names, saying that would be unfair to them.
When she was asked why she had taken so long to come to St. Petersburg, Interim Regional Chancellor Martin Tadlock intervened.
He said he asked Genshaft to give the campus some time to recover from Wisniewska’s departure and “get back on its feet” before she visited.
Although she never mentioned Wisniewska’s name, Genshaft repeatedly referred to student safety, saying that “the safety and welfare of students is a non-negotiable item.”
“There is simply a line in the sand – that if there are any students, faculty or staff that are in jeopardy under your leadership you have to really do something about it,” she said.
She also stressed that the Tampa campus held students from both the St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee campuses during the storm, noting that they were put up in a new residence hall and had four mental health counselors as well as a doctor on call.
Genshaft was asked where she was during the hurricane.
“I was very much there, watching,” she said. She said that she walked the campus and checked on everyone, including USFSP students staying at the Tampa campus, before going home to ride out the storm.
During the meetings with faculty and students, Genshaft spent considerable time stressing that every initiative on the St. Petersburg campus – including the Vision 2020 Plan and drive to increase diversity – will proceed as planned.
She did, however, add the caveat that all plans need tweaking from time to time.
When she was asked about adjunct professors’ drive to form a union, she deferred to her legal team, which fielded multiple questions from people in orange T-shirts with the “Faculty Forward” slogan.
Asked whether Tadlock, the interim chancellor, would be considered for the permanent position, Genshaft said he was welcome to apply come August.
Ebby Ezema, a graduate student seeking a master’s of business administration in finance and information systems, asked Genshaft what role the St. Petersburg campus played in the USF family.
Each of the three campuses has its own distinct personality and needs, and they serve their communities differently, she said. Marine biology, she said, is a major area of focus for this campus, especially given the surrounding marine science sources such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Ezema said he is concerned that USF St. Petersburg does not always receive the accolades it deserves. He said he feels like USFSP is the little sister or the little brother of the USF system and would like to see it continue to grow.
“You have one hundred, million, thousand percent support from me,” Genshaft said.