By Timothy Fanning
When the president of the USF system abruptly removed Regional Chancellor Sophia Wisniewska last month, no critic was fiercer than professor Raymond Arsenault.
The ouster, he said, was “more like an execution than a resignation.” He slammed President Judy Genshaft’s move as a “gross overreaction” that trampled on due process, ignored senior faculty, ruined Wisniewska’s reputation and threw the St. Petersburg campus into turmoil.
Now, three weeks later, Genshaft has still done or said nothing to mollify her harshest critic.
On Friday, when she appeared on campus for the first time since the ouster, Genshaft met privately with a small group of senior professors before publicly addressing a larger group of faculty and staff.
She spoke about her attempt to create a seamless campus system — Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee — that collaborates to improve retention and graduation rates and stresses the importance of student safety.
“She spent the majority of our time telling us things that everybody in the room already knew,” he said later.
“We just couldn’t get to the core of the matter, and I am very disappointed,” said Arsenault, who has worked with 12 interim and permanent campus leaders since he came to teach on the St. Petersburg campus in 1980.
“I wanted to have a chance to tell her how dispiriting this is in terms of instability. Sophia was the fourth full-time regional chancellor in a row that was removed. I don’t think she (Genshaft) quite heard me in the way I wanted her to hear me. I was trying to communicate to her that the way she removed Sophia created a needless crisis.”
Although Genshaft said Friday that she consulted state legislators, members of the Board of Trustees and others in St. Petersburg whom she declined to identify, senior professors like Arsenault have said they were caught flat-footed by Genshaft’s move.
Some of them said that, given the importance of the issues at hand, they weren’t given enough time in Friday’s meetings with Genshaft to discuss their concerns.
“I don’t think she dealt with our criticisms directly,” said Jay Sokolovsky, a professor at USF St. Petersburg since 1994 and chair of the Department of Society, Culture and Language. “She kept saying that she loves this campus and she knows that we are moving it forward. But I don’t think she convinced many faculty who have been here a long time that this was actually the case.”
Arsenault, a professor of Southern history, attended both faculty meetings, hoping to have a longer discussion with Genshaft.
“Nobody got to counter Judy’s decision to force Sophia to resign. What I wanted to say was that her status, the faculty’s status and the campus’ status look foolish in the press and in the eyes of the city,” Arsenault said.
“I can’t go anywhere without someone asking me, ‘Why on earth did (Genshaft) do it?’ I don’t think she realizes the public relations disaster she is going to have to deal with. It’s not going away today, and it’s not going to go away tomorrow.”
Arsenault said the only good that came of the meetings was Genshaft’s announcement that the university will begin looking for a new regional chancellor in August.
“The search is a long, very time-consuming process,” Sokolovsky said. “I think the campus is very eager to move on. Up until the moment she told us it (the St. Petersburg campus) was going to help in the search, some of us were concerned that given the suddenness of yet another firing of a head of campus, that this would foretell some change in how our campus leaders are chosen.”
But Arsenault said he fears the near-constant turmoil in the leadership of the St. Petersburg campus will complicate the search for a new regional chancellor.
“Judy has been here 17 years, and she has removed four chancellors, all of whom I think were doing a good job,” Arsenault said. “We didn’t get a chance to talk about how dispiriting this is in terms of instability.”
“Who would take the job when the last four (St. Petersburg chancellors) have been fired?” he said. “So you come here, with a distinguished career like Sophia, and after four years, you are humiliated and trashed in front of the press? I mean, I wouldn’t take it, and I hate to say that.”
Arsenault said the St. Petersburg campus has always needed someone to stand up to Tampa, and he fears that if the campus does not have a chancellor with “some backbone, who will stand up for us,” that it will “cripple us.”
“I’ll probably retire in a few years, and I hope that by the end of it, I can really be proud of the way this place has become,” Arsenault said.