Saturday, December 16, 2017
Education

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

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 [email protected] You can also follow her on Twitter (@lisagartner).

Comments
Top USF Health official leaves amid questions of assistant’s special treatment

Top USF Health official leaves amid questions of assistant’s special treatment

TAMPA — A high-ranking University of South Florida Health official has resigned amid internal concerns that he was giving special treatment to his assistant.After an internal investigation, USF System President Judy Genshaft was poised last month to ...
Published: 12/15/17
Hillsborough school district and its teachers are at a bargaining impasse, but still talking

Hillsborough school district and its teachers are at a bargaining impasse, but still talking

TAMPA — A months-long conflict over planned pay raises has moved to a new phase with the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association declaring a bargaining impasse with the public school district.The two sides, which began negotiations in late spring...
Published: 12/15/17
Pinellas schools sheltered thousands during Irma. Here’s what it cost

Pinellas schools sheltered thousands during Irma. Here’s what it cost

Three months later, the Pinellas County school district has totaled up the costs of operating 16 schools as shelters for 25,000 evacuees during Hurricane Irma.The district is asking the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, for a reimbursemen...
Published: 12/15/17
Love of science is the goal, now that every Pinellas elementary school has a lab

Love of science is the goal, now that every Pinellas elementary school has a lab

SEMINOLE — It was hard for the second-graders at Orange Grove Elementary to resist the urge to rush into the school’s science lab and tinker with the colorful objects neatly arranged on each table.Thursday was just their second time in the lab this y...
Published: 12/15/17
Florida lawmakers want stronger college free speech rules amid First Amendment flareups

Florida lawmakers want stronger college free speech rules amid First Amendment flareups

Rising up in defiance to Richard Spencer, hundreds of University of Florida students sounded off in a deafening chant."Go home, Spencer!" they shouted, as the exasperated white nationalist paced the stage, pleading to be heard.Were the students exerc...
Published: 12/13/17
Updated: 12/14/17
Hernando could be next stop for PACE Center for Girls

Hernando could be next stop for PACE Center for Girls

BROOKSVILLE — The new year could bring about new beginnings for at-risk girls in Hernando County.Pending a vote by the School Board next month, PACE Center for Girls, an alternative education program for middle- and high-school students, could open a...
Published: 12/13/17
Updated: 12/14/17

Pasco school district, employees reach contract agreement

The raises for Pasco County school district employees aren’t as high as anyone would like, but they’re now part of a signed tentative contract deal reached just before 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.If ratified by the staff and the School Board, the agreements ...
Published: 12/13/17
For Bexley students in Land O’Lakes, math skills go airborne

For Bexley students in Land O’Lakes, math skills go airborne

LAND O’LAKES — At Bexley Elementary School in Land O’Lakes, students are throwing paper airplanes — with the help of a high tech computerized launcher. They’re also bowling — with a little aid from computerized drones. And when they get around to it,...
Published: 12/13/17

Proposal to rollback early learning programs could bring Citrus into Pasco-Hernando coalition

Some Florida lawmakers have not hidden their desire to scale back the statewide number of early learning coalitions that oversee child care and preschool programs, including Voluntary Prekindergarten.The state Office of Early Learning has now issued ...
Published: 12/13/17
Brink Foundation, school district create Town ’N Country STEM hub

Brink Foundation, school district create Town ’N Country STEM hub

TAMPA — Elementary school students programmed an electronic mouse to make its way through a maze.Middle school students directed an electronic vehicle to stop on a dime, then use its arms to locate and lift a tiny cube.When the demonstration was done...
Published: 12/12/17
Updated: 12/14/17