ST. PETERSBURG — Three and a half years after she was tapped to lead the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus, Margaret Sullivan is stepping down from her post.
Though she was expected to stay on through at least summer 2013, Sullivan, 68, said she has decided to leave in August. The school is in a good place, she told the Tampa Bay Times on Monday morning, and she is ready to move on.
"Each year as you get older, you count the days and how you'll spend them," she said. "The institution has accomplished a great deal. Now it's on its own trajectory."
In a short letter to USF president Judy Genshaft, who was out of town, Sullivan thanked her for what has been a "wonderful challenge and a great opportunity." She vowed to work to ensure a smooth transition for a new leader.
Genshaft later sent her own letter to the USF community thanking Sullivan for guiding USF St. Petersburg "through challenging and defining times in its history."
"She leaves USF St. Petersburg as a strong, vibrant and forward-looking institution," Genshaft wrote.
She said she would appoint an interim leader in the coming days and launch a nationwide search for a permanent replacement.
Sullivan, a higher education accreditation expert, came to the campus in as interim chancellor in 2008 when USF St. Pete's accreditation was on probation. (Like other parts of the USF system, USF St. Pete's separate accreditation means it shares many central services with USF but is autonomous in governance and finances.)
Within six months, probation was lifted. By 2009, Genshaft removed the "interim" from Sullivan's title. She signed a contract for $250,000 a year.
When the Southern Association for Colleges and Schools returned to USF St. Petersburg for an update in 2011, it found just one minor problem: A handful of students were taking too many credits at USF Tampa to qualify under USF St. Petersburg's accreditation umbrella. Sullivan said she quickly rectified the situation.
Her mission, in other words, has been accomplished.
And now, she said, "I think I'll take a nap."
Sullivan's departure comes as the school is bracing for a fifth straight year of budget cuts.
USF St. Pete's share of the total $300 million cut to the state university system is $5 million. USF Tampa's is almost $37 million.
To at least partially offset the loss, the USF system was just granted authority by the Florida Board of Governors to raise tuition 11 percent next year. The move follows several years of consistent 15 percent tuition hikes at every university in the state.
This year, USF asked for less than the 15 percent maximum allowed by law, following signals from the Board of Governors that the maximum hike would be a particularly tough sell this year, given Gov. Rick Scott's outspoken aversion to raising tuition.
It didn't sit well with Sullivan, who told members of the USF Board of Trustees when they voted on that amount a couple of weeks ago that not having that extra revenue would hit the branch campuses particularly hard.
Frustrated as she was, Sullivan said it didn't factor into Monday's announcement.
"The decision was made quite some time ago," she said.
In a letter to faculty, staff and students, Sullivan said she was confident "USFSP is headed in the right direction despite the financial challenges ahead."
Since February, there were hints that Sullivan was on her way out.
It was around the time that USF hired an outside search firm to find a replacement leader for the USF Polytechnic campus in Lakeland, or rather, the first president of what was about to become the independent Florida Polytechnic University. Sullivan was appointed head of a USF committee working with the firm.
But when USF officially hired R. William Funk and Associates, they signed a contract for not one senior-level position search, but two. The exact positions were not specified, but a spokesman later confirmed that Sullivan's job was one of a few possibilities on the table, citing the upcoming end date of her contract.
Sullivan concurs. She said the move didn't surprise her.
Indeed, Sullivan's 2009 job offer letter spells out that a search for a new chancellor would begin in the fall of 2012.
"An institution has to look out for its own interests," Sullivan said Monday.
From here, she will return to her home in north Georgia where her husband, children and grandchildren live.
She said she would likely continue to offer accreditation consulting services through her company, the Southeastern Consulting Group in Higher Education, which has helped hundreds of institutions in the southeastern United States, as well as Ecuador, Nicaragua, Mexico and the Virgin Islands. But for now, she said she'll likely stay around the Georgia area. "Unless the beach calls."
What advice does she have for her successor, when he or she is chosen?
"I think they should have a good sense of humor," Sullivan said.
Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337.