By Whitney Elfstrom and Jeffrey Waitkevich
When the St. Petersburg campus learned in January that the Legislature was considering abolishing its accreditation, the news landed like a bombshell.
In both St. Petersburg and Tampa, USF administrators said they were caught off guard.
USF system President Judy Genshaft “was as surprised as we were,” interim Regional Chancellor Martin Tadlock said at a St. Petersburg campus forum Jan. 19.
As it turns out, however, Genshaft was surprised in October – not January. And she apparently kept the news to herself.
She acknowledged at a Campus Board meeting on Thursday that she learned about the “notion of consolidation” of the three USF system campuses in “mid-fall semester … and I was as surprised as you all were.”
In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times afterward, Genshaft said that state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, told her and USF lobbyist Helen Levine in late October that lawmakers were mulling options for the governance of the three campuses.
One option is the one that Brandes and Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, are now pursuing: abolishing the independent accreditations of St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee and putting them under the control of Tampa.
In an email to The Crow’s Nest, Genshaft spokeswoman Lara Wade said the president did not share what she learned in October because “it was one of several options that were potentially under consideration, including making no changes at all.
“Until legislation was proposed,” Wade wrote, “it would have been irresponsible to speculate about that potential with a broader community.”
That explanation seems likely to fan the flames of distrust in St. Petersburg, where many campus veterans and retirees recall an unhappy era before 2006, when St. Petersburg was controlled by what retired financial administrator Herman Brames has called “the guillotine that is in Tampa.”
It also seems likely to intensify doubts about Genshaft, who in 18 years as USF system president has changed St. Petersburg campus leaders six times.
The last change came in September, when she abruptly ousted Regional Chancellor Sophia Wisniewska for the way she handled Hurricane Irma.
Some senior professors were stunned by Genshaft’s move, which one of them – longtime history professor Ray Arsenault – called a “gross overreaction” that violated due process, ignored senior faculty, ruined Wisniewska’s reputation and threw the campus into turmoil.
Some defenders of the St. Petersburg campus now see Genshaft’s hand in the proposal to abolish its independent accreditation, which emerged – without warning – in the last two pages of a 52-page bill on higher education in the second week of the legislative session.
One of them is St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, who served six years in the state House of Representatives.
“I find it very hard to believe that this came as a complete surprise to everybody involved with USF Tampa,” he said last week in an interview with WUSF Public Media.
“Someone, whether it was President Genshaft or the Board of Trustees, had to know that this was coming because things don’t just happen in a vacuum (in Tallahassee) … That’s not the way it works.”
Tadlock, who became the interim regional chancellor after Wisniewska was ousted, said he did not learn about the proposal until the day before the story broke in the news media in January.
Genshaft “has stated that she was surprised when she learned about the legislation,” Tadlock wrote in an email to The Crow’s Nest. “I have no reason to doubt that.”
She did not discuss the bill with him until the day he learned about it, he wrote.
On Friday and Saturday, The Crow’s Nest repeatedly sought to reach Brandes, the legislator who alerted Genshaft in October that legislation might be brewing.
In an email, the newspaper asked Brandes if he also alerted anyone on the St. Petersburg campus, why legislators waited until after the session began to introduce the proposal, why they buried it in a 52-page bill, and how he was reacting to the widespread opposition in Pinellas County.
On Saturday afternoon, Brandes’ legislation assistant emailed that he would not be available to discuss those questions until this week.
This is how Genshaft spokeswoman Lara Wade replied when The Crow’s Nest asked why the president did not alert the St. Petersburg campus when she learned in October that legislators were considering a proposal to abolish St. Petersburg’s separate accreditation:
“The issue of the USF system structure has been an ongoing discussion at the state level for years – especially as it relates to reporting, efficiencies, budget, data and metric collection.
“In Florida, USF is the only university that has independent accreditation for each of its three campuses. Therefore, discussing if this is the most efficient way to continue operating is a topic that is discussed frequently.
“I think the president (Genshaft) and several legislators have made it clear that when that issue was raised in conversation late last year it was one of several options that were potentially under consideration, including making no changes at all.
“Until legislation was proposed, it would have been irresponsible to speculate about that potential with a broader community.”
Header photo: Jeffrey Waitkevich | The Crow’s Nest