Throughout my tenure in academia, my focus has always been on putting students first.
That's why — as Hurricane Irma threatened the Tampa Bay area — I took every action to ensure the safety of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg student body and to protect the campus. As a relative newcomer to Florida, Irma was my very first hurricane experience, and my instinct was to act with an overabundance of caution. Unfortunately, recent reports paint a different picture, and it's important to set the record straight.
Working alongside my emergency management team, and listening to the cautions coming from state and local officials, on Sept. 6 I made the firm recommendation to close the USFSP campus and to evacuate the residence halls. Recognizing that the entire state may be impacted, I thought it important that students have adequate time to get where they needed to be. I was disappointed when USF President Judy Genshaft countermanded that decision.
Although I did not agree with President Genshaft, we cooperated with her guidance and continued carrying out the other elements of our hurricane preparedness plans, securing buildings on campus and planning for potential impacts from flooding or wind damage. When President Genshaft finally approved a formal evacuation two days later, we quickly executed the plan we had initially set in place.
I'm extremely proud of the efforts of the entire USFSP team. They worked tirelessly during those frightening days — focused on our students, even when their own homes and families were in harm's way. It was a tremendous effort, and I thank them for their support.
Once we had the campus closed and secure, I recognized that my own personal plans for the hurricane were not realistic. The storm was tracking closer and closer to the greater Tampa/St. Petersburg area, and predictions of significant storm surges could have impacted my own home near the bay. With hotels in the area completely booked, I did what many other Floridians chose to do and decided to drive to Atlanta.
This was not a decision I made lightly.
Before leaving, I made sure that essential staff was in place and that we had clear communication channels throughout the storm. I wanted to have my finger on the pulse of the campus, and we were in constant contact through texts, emails and conference calls.
Although damage to the campus was minimal, I was anxious to get back as soon as possible and arranged for a private plane so that I could be back with the team and prepare for our students' return.
I realize that some may disagree with my decision to leave — and I accept that. But my departure never put our students in danger. I do not believe my actions warranted a termination, but President Genshaft has every right to choose another regional chancellor.
While I respect her decision, I am disappointed that I will not have the opportunity to continue the extraordinary progress we have made over the past four years at USFSP. Working together with the board, faculty, staff, and students, we developed an ambitious strategic plan, introduced new majors and minors, established the first named college at USFSP, improved our rankings and reputation, and secured the largest private gifts in USFSP history. This has been one of the greatest privileges of my professional career and I am grateful for all that I have learned and for the extraordinary people with whom I have worked.
Sophia Wisniewska is the former regional chancellor of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.