In times of crisis, leaders cannot abandon ship and be unclear about their whereabouts. That is essentially what the leader of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg did with Hurricane Irma headed this way. Sophia Wisniewska's actions fell short of what should be expected from an experienced administrator responsible for the safety of her students and the security of her campus, and USF president Judy Genshaft's move to fire her was appropriate.
The well-liked Wisniewska came to USF St. Petersburg as its chancellor four years ago and made important contributions to the campus. She helped attract major donations, including the school's largest-ever gift, $10 million toward naming the Kate Tiedemann College of Business; proposed doubling enrollment; improved the pool of applicants; and expanded the attractive campus. She has been active in the community, creating new partnerships and serving as president of St. Petersburg's Innovation District.
But serious misjudgments at key moments can cancel out a record of achievement. At the University of Florida, president Kent Fuchs personally drove students to the campus shelter as Irma approached. At the USF main campus in Tampa, Genshaft walked the campus to talk with students, faculty and officials and to assess the situation. At USF St. Petersburg, by sometime late on Sept. 9, Wisniewska had evacuated to Atlanta.
Wisniewska defends her actions by saying she did not leave until all students had been evacuated — the final 10 left on Sept. 9 and the main residence hall closed by noon that day. She also asserts that she wanted to evacuate students earlier in the week and was told that she had to await an official order. In a letter to USF Monday, she wrote: "The actual facts are that I exercised sound judgment at all times, led my team successfully, communicated continuously, and most importantly, put the safety of the students first."
Yet even by Wisniewska's version of events, the decisionmaking process to evacuate the campus sounds flawed, communication with students and staff during the storm was less than ideal, and other key staff also had left the area or were not near the campus. The chancellor's insistence on a last-minute legal opinion on her authority to order students out before the hurricane is peculiar, and her insinuation in a late-night email that she had remained on campus when she had evacuated to Atlanta could not be overlooked by Genshaft.
"Your conduct created an intolerable safety risk to our students and the USFSP community," Genshaft wrote in a draft termination letter. Because Wisniewska negotiated a resignation on Monday, the letter was not officially sent. She was terminated immediately as chancellor, although both sides officially allege no wrongdoing. Wisniewska will lose tenure and stay off campus the rest of the semester, and she will be paid for 60 days based on her current salary of $265,000. Then her pay will be converted to her faculty salary rate until May 1, when she will leave USF.
Now USF St. Petersburg must regroup and move forward. Genshaft has named Martin Tadlock, the regional campus' top academic officer, as interim leader. In searching for a permanent leader, USF officials should seek someone who can build on Wisniewska's work, the relationships she fostered in the community and efforts to make USF St. Petersburg a destination campus in its own right. Genshaft must find a leader who is independent enough to lead this campus but who can work well within the USF system — and perform in an emergency.