ST. PETERSBURG — She started her career as a secretary at Pennsylvania State University, only to become chancellor of its most diverse branch campus. On Tuesday, Sophia Wisniewska continued her climb, this time as the new leader of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
The 61-year-old educator emerged from an applicant pool of 74 after Margaret Sullivan's resignation last summer set off a nationwide search for a new chancellor. Wisniewska is expected to create a five-year plan for USF St. Petersburg and oversee it in the chancellor role for at least five years.
"I believe Dr. Wisniewska has the experience and vision to continue the tremendous progress we have witnessed at USF St. Petersburg," USF president Judy Genshaft said in a message to faculty, staff and students. "Her commitment to scholarship, teaching and community engagement will enrich both USFSP and the broader community. She will inspire all who meet her."
Wisniewska has been the leader of Penn State Brandywine since 2005, when she left her position as the dean of Temple University Ambler. She studied Russian and history at Penn State before earning a master's and doctorate in Russian from Bryn Mawr College, as well as a doctorate in second-language acquisition.
At USF St. Petersburg, Wisniewska will earn a salary of $265,000 and report directly to Genshaft. In a multicampus system like USF, the president has final say over most things. But as the chancellor, Wisniewska is charged with shaping the mission of USF St. Petersburg, guiding programs and services while building financial and legislative support for the branch.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Wisniewska said she was attracted to USF St. Petersburg because of its relatively independent status for a branch campus. St. Petersburg is the only USF branch campus independently accredited from the flagship, and lobbies for itself and its funding.
"I think the institution has more of an opportunity to establish its own reputation, its own ranking, and to move forward with developing new programs and new services," Wisniewska said.
Wisniewska's proudest accomplishment as the Penn State Brandywine chancellor is forming a durable strategic plan — something weighing heavily on the minds of officials and students at USF St. Petersburg, whose own plan is up this school year.
"Rather than think about the specific items," Wisniewska said, "I would really like to spend a little time dreaming and focusing on the vision, to first try to home in on the big picture, and I think everything else will follow."
Born in a tiny Polish village about 100 miles east of Warsaw, Wisniewska came to Philadelphia in 1962. The first in her family to finish grade school, let alone college, Wisniewska took a job as a secretary at Penn State shortly after graduating from the university. She was quickly promoted to the post of evening school administrator, and upward from there.
Between five different Penn State campuses and Temple Ambler, Wisniewska has gone from a director to an associate dean to a dean to chancellor at multilevel systems that she likened to USF's.
"To be honest, I wasn't looking," Wisniewska told the USF St. Petersburg search committee, explaining that a colleague had shown her the job posting. "I looked at the position description and it felt like it had my DNA on it."
Genshaft chose Wisniewska from among three finalists recommended by an 18-member search committee of faculty, staff, alumni, community members, trustees and a student.
Interim chancellor Bill Hogarth was a semifinalist when the applicant pool was narrowed to six, but was not chosen to advance to the final three. Hogarth is director of the Florida Institute of Oceanography adjacent to USF St. Petersburg. He was a favorite among students, who say he eats lunch with them and listens to their problems.
But Mark Lombardi-Nelson, president of the student government and a member of the chancellor search committee, said he expected students to embrace Wisniewska and was pleased to see her picked.
"You could tell that she was a frontrunner from the beginning, from just the way she presented herself and her resume," Lombardi-Nelson said. "She kicked it in the interview. She took that room over, and everyone recognized it."
Wisniewska is admittedly not a familiar face to USF St. Petersburg. Demonstrating how to pronounce her last name (wis-NEW-skuh), she confessed that she'd be happy with anything that started with a "W."
She's lived most of her life in Pennsylvania, although she has spent her past three birthdays flying into Tampa and driving to Sarasota to be with friends. And in January, just before her interview for the chancellor position, Wisniewska "snuck" on campus.
She picked up the student newspaper, talked to a couple students, walked along Tampa Bay and "stuck my nose into a couple of the buildings." She said she got a good feeling.
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Contact Lisa Gartner at [email protected] You can also follow her on Twitter @lisagartner.