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A chat with Sophia Wisniewska, the new chancellor of USF St. Petersburg

Chancellor Sophia Wisniewska, 61, shown in her office Monday, will be expected to shape the mission of the downtown university, guide programs and build financial and legislative support.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Chancellor Sophia Wisniewska, 61, shown in her office Monday, will be expected to shape the mission of the downtown university, guide programs and build financial and legislative support.

Sophia Wisniewska started her term as chancellor of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg on July 1, ending a yearlong search launched when Margaret Sullivan stepped down last summer. The majority of the school's 4,000 or so undergraduates hail from Pinellas County, but about 15 percent come from Hillsborough. The Tampa Bay Times sat down with Wisniewska after her first week on campus.

Job No. 1 for you is developing a five-year strategic plan for the university. What will be the central questions, and when will we see answers?

I think you start with the big picture. Clearly the vision question will be an important one for us. USF St. Pete is very different today than it was eight years ago, and it's certainly very different than it was 10 or 20 years ago. So I think we need to discuss the big question: Who do we want to be? What are we going to look like in the year 2013 and beyond? At the same time I think we quickly need to identify opportunities. What do we need to do sooner rather than later? … I can tell you the last time I did something like this, and it was on a fast-track, we did it in a year.

Certainly, size is one of the big questions on the table. Some think USF St. Petersburg should grow to be a 25,000-student university. Others like it at about 5,000 undergraduates. Where do you fall?

I don't know. I think that's going to be one of the tougher questions to answer. It's not like you have an idea about size and it's going to happen. … Space will be an issue, and the size of the physical plan will be an issue, the resources available to us to develop new programs to hire the commensurate faculty that will be required.

You'll also be figuring out what degree of selectivity USF St. Petersburg wants. The dean of arts and sciences has said it could become "a public Ivy." Still, there is sometimes a perception that it draws students who weren't ready for the "prime time" of the Tampa campus.

I don't know if I have that sense. As I said, this is day one of week two, so it's not like I have a lot of firsthand information. But my sense from talking to students when I was going through the interview process, and most recently when I got on campus, is the people — I don't know if they were referrals or first-choice students — but they seemed really, really happy to be here. … So I think the educational experience here is really strong. But in terms of USF St. Pete being a national destination institution, I think it can be that. I think it probably already is for some programs and some experiences.

You're right on the water, and sharing land with the Florida Institute of Oceanography. Do you see marine science as a potential USF St. Petersburg trademark degree?

I think. (When first on campus) I was just overwhelmed by the proximity of research institutions, potential business partners. And I think because of the diversity, of the different enterprises that are here and the proximity to here, I think we could be a national laboratory for cooperation. … The dean is away right now for a couple weeks but we've already had preliminary conversations about getting together to see how we can collaborate and do joint programming.

Another big-ticket program is the business graduate school. The Florida Legislature gave you $5.3 million toward the $25 million project. What's next?

I think quickly we will need to figure out how to get enough funding to have at least 50 percent of the total cost in our budget in order to be able to move forward with that project. My understanding is that once the Legislature and the state appropriate a certain amount of money and make a commitment to a project, then they provide additional funding the second year and the third year and see the project through. So we do expect to be able to have the necessary resources to build the building. When that will happen exactly and in what amounts of money, I don't know.

Speaking of building — what about residence halls? You have two, built in the last seven years. Are there plans for a third?

There are conversations about that. I won't say there are specific plans.

Money and space aside, do you see St. Pete as a university that should be more residential?

I do. I do, I do, I do. Particularly if we're going to have strong expectations for higher graduation rates. Quite frankly … more traditional students who are completely focused on the residential experience are graduating at higher rates. It's just how it is. And also, with residence halls, it's easier to develop "centers of excellence" and draw students from a variety of backgrounds and geographical regions.

What are centers of excellence?

Certain programs are more unique than others. For instance, the Florida Studies (master's) program only exists as far as I know at USF St. Pete in Florida. It's a wonderful program. That program could draw students beyond the immediate geographic area if we could accommodate students and have places for them to live, and built that reputation as the only institution that has that capability. And also with residence halls it's easier to draw out-of-state students. I mean, who wouldn't want to come here? (Whispers) And they pay double the tuition.

Contact Lisa Gartner at lgartner@tampabay.com. You can also follow her on Twitter (@lisagartner).

Sophia Wisniewska

Age: 61

Born: Sierpc, Poland

New neighborhood: Old Northeast,

St. Petersburg

Previous jobs:

Chancellor, Penn State Brandywine; dean and chief

executive officer, Temple University Ambler

A chat with Sophia Wisniewska, the new chancellor of USF St. Petersburg 07/13/13 [Last modified: Thursday, July 11, 2013 6:53pm]

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