TAMPA — University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft got a tongue-lashing Thursday from state university system leaders for the way she replaced the regional chancellor of USF's Lakeland campus.
In a hastily organized conference call, members of the Board of Governors took turns weighing in on Genshaft's personnel change — an unusual move for the state board, particularly considering that Genshaft notified the members of her intentions before removing Marshall Goodman this week.
That didn't soften the criticism.
"I find that what president Genshaft has done is she's redefined the word 'collaboration' and it is now spelled V-I-N-D-I-C-A-T-I-O-N," said board member Norman Tripp, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer.
"We are extremely displeased with the way this thing went," said member Mori Hosseini, head of a Daytona Beach construction company.
The call was the latest flash point in a politically volatile fight over making USF Polytechnic independent. The months-long debate pitted students, faculty and community members against Goodman and JD Alexander, the state senator who has led the charge to break USF Poly away.
Though the Board of Governors voted last month to delay the separation by imposing several benchmarks for independence, the battle hasn't quieted.
And Genshaft, who initially fought to keep the campus part of USF, stepped on a land mine by ousting Goodman.
On Tuesday, Genshaft said she removed the embattled chancellor because she had lost faith in his leadership. So had the faculty at USF Poly, she said, noting its recent vote of no confidence.
Genshaft temporarily replaced Goodman with Lakeland accountant David Touchton, who has said the school's independence should be delayed by at least a year for a "thoughtful review."
During the conference call, Genshaft reminded the board members that she had called each of them personally to tell them about the change before announcing it. But Tripp said she should have waited until the board's mid-January meeting so the move could be discussed collectively.
Genshaft said she wanted to make the change before the new semester starts in January — a fresh start for students.
"I was not trying to hide anything," she said.
She apologized if board members felt cut out of the process and said in the future she'll be more "collaborative."
John Ramil, chairman of USF's board of trustees, said in his 12 years spent working with the university, collaboration with the Board of Governors has never before required such close consultation on these kinds of personnel issues.
"But if that's the definition moving forward, that's the definition we will all live with," Ramil said.
Not all of the board members took shots. Dick Beard of Tampa questioned whether this level of involvement from the board was necessary.
"It's certainly not our job to hire and fire. That's the president's job. Second-guessing all this at this point in time is not productive," Beard said. "I was not worried at all about Mr. Touchton, nor did I consider at the time that there would be some political ramification."
This all comes just a few weeks before the start of a legislative session, with political heavy hitters on both sides weighing in.
After the conference call, Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, sent out a copy of the state statute that outlines the Board of Governors' authority.
"Nowhere does it give the BOG permission to micromanage any Florida state university," Fasano wrote. "This so-called special meeting was called only because of political pressure by a certain state senator."
Fasano said he was talking about Sen. Alexander, who was called out by the Board of Governor's student member last month for intimidation and veiled threats.
Alexander, R-Lake Wales, was unavailable for comment Thursday, his spokeswoman said.
The powerful Senate budget chairman cannot seek re-election next year because of term limits, but he has now enlisted the support of Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who is in line to take over as Senate president next November.
Gaetz also showed up at the Board of Governors meeting in November, urging the board to set the campus free for the sake of future students.
Students were the reason Hosseini, the Daytona Beach board member, gave for the board's short leash. He said members should keep open the option of handing USF Poly over to another state university while it transitions to independence — a suggestion Alexander has made repeatedly.
"We are doing a job the best we can," Hosseini said, "for our children."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Kim Wilmath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813-226-3337.