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At USF St. Petersburg, the ouster of another leader shows who's boss

Students walk across the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus this week. The recent ouster of regional chancellor Sophia Wisniewska has highlighted the long-running and natural tension between the small but independent waterfront campus and USF System leaders in Tampa. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]

Students walk across the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus this week. The recent ouster of regional chancellor Sophia Wisniewska has highlighted the long-running and natural tension between the small but independent waterfront campus and USF System leaders in Tampa. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Sep. 30, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — Disbelief has shadowed the waterfront campus of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg since the abrupt ouster of its well-liked leader, but along with that shock has emerged a trademark streak of defiance.

Faculty members trade rumors, many unwilling to accept USF's rationale for the forced resignation of regional chancellor Sophia Wisniewska, who ruffled feathers when she caught a ride to Atlanta as Hurricane Irma bore down.

USF System President Judy Genshaft lambasted Wisniewska for her "incompetence" in evacuating dorms and shoring up plans before heading north, appearing to abandon her post.

Still, some faculty members surmise it was Wisniewska's loyalty to St. Petersburg that made her a target for what some call "the wrath of Judy."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: USF: St. Petersburg leader forced out for botching Irma evacuation

"It was more like an execution than a resignation," said longtime history professor Ray Arsenault, who has seen several chancellors come and go in recent decades.

USF officials dismiss that idea outright. But the sudden departure is just the latest reminder that, for all of USFSP's hard-fought and fiercely guarded autonomy within the USF system, it still answers to the powers that be in Tampa.

Independent, mostly

The campus used to be a ghost town in the daylight. From its debut in 1965, the little patch of land along Bayboro Harbor drew determined night students making another go at college. Professors stayed up late teaching. Students challenged them in water volleyball. The mood was scrappy, intimate, community-college-meets-liberal-arts.

The decades since have brought exceptional growth alongside turnover and turmoil as the campus has morphed from a sleepy commuter outpost into a classically collegiate, if small, first-choice university.

Leaders of both schools admit to healthy tension along the way, especially as USF worked out the kinks of St. Petersburg's separate accreditation. But they say the St. Petersburg school has blossomed in the care of the USF system, headquartered 30 miles away across the bridge.

St. Petersburg students get small classes and a downtown vibe, but they also get to cheer on the Division I Bulls. Administrators hire faculty and spend as they see fit, but they get to share legal services and lobbying power. All benefit from the rising reputation of Tampa's sprawling research university.

"We're not Tampa, and we're not Sarasota, and that's important," said interim chancellor Martin Tadlock, referencing a third USF entity to the south. "But all of these resources … a lot of that is based on the collaborations we have within a system like this."

Sometimes, though, the line between independence and a shared identity can blur. Faculty in St. Petersburg remain wary of any challenge to their independence. And taking out their popular leader — the fourth chancellor to leave under Genshaft — has raised many an eyebrow.

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'I didn't realize'

In an interview, the former chancellor opened up about her shock and sadness.

"It's been rough," Wisniewska said, finally able to sleep nearly a week after resigning.

As the storm approached, USF canceled classes. Wisniewska, 65, said her low-lying campus was the first to push for dorm closures, only to be rebuffed by Genshaft, who wanted to wait for mandatory evacuations.

A few holdout students were told they could stay. When the weather worsened and USF leaders changed course, Wisniewska asked for legal guidance in case any of the stragglers resisted.

In a draft letter, Genshaft wrote that Wisniewska's apparent hesitation showed she lacked competence. Wisniewska countered that she did everything needed to keep students safe.

Wisniewska had planned to stay in St. Petersburg for the storm, even stocking up on roasted chickens. But when her neighbor warned that her house would be reduced to a pile of sticks, and since local hotels were full, she said, she drove north.

Once in Atlanta, Wisniewska emailed Genshaft a campus update without making clear that she had left, referencing birds chirping. The next morning, she clarified her location.

"I wish I had been clearer," she said last week, adding, "I didn't realize the importance of staying in Florida."

Former USF president Betty Castor called it "perhaps the ultimate in miscommunication."

Despite speculation that the relationship between the leaders had soured, Wisniewska fondly recalled lunches with Genshaft at Seasons 52, swapping ideas. Performance evaluations show high marks for Wisniewska's achievements, including securing $10 million for the gleaming new business college and filling out her leadership team.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: USF St. Petersburg leader responds to criticism of hurricane decisions

Yet Genshaft also reminded Wisniewska to play a more devoted role in the USF system, from performance-based goals to getting a USF license plate for her car.

"I was a little slow on that," Wisniewska admitted. But when she texted Genshaft a picture of her new plate, she said, Genshaft gave her a high-five.

Tale of two cities

By the 1980s and 1990s, resentment had long simmered in St. Petersburg as the wheels of bureaucracy ground on at the crowded Tampa campus.

"There was a joke that if you put a dollar in a Coke machine on the USF St. Pete campus, the dollar would go to Tampa and a nickel would come back," said Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice, once a St. Petersburg student himself.

St. Pete professors cherished their small classes and remove from what they saw as an industrial model across the bridge. But like a teenager, St. Pete itched for more freedom under Tampa's authoritative eye. Leaders wanted to make their own hires and create their own programs. They wanted trust.

In 2000, a state senator seized on that sentiment. Don Sullivan crusaded to sever the St. Petersburg campus from USF's grasp.

Though the bill failed, it succeeded in making Tampa take a second look. On her first day as president, Genshaft came to St. Petersburg to hear concerns. Eventually, she pitched a plan: St. Petersburg would stay in the system, but as a standalone university making its own decisions — with her final say.

Amid these hurdles, Genshaft asked popular campus leader Bill Heller to step down. Professors suspected that Heller hadn't been good at taking orders.

Accreditors were skeptical that St. Petersburg was sufficiently autonomous. So Genshaft gave St. Petersburg new powers, even separate diplomas. She got the all-clear.

A university was born.

"They'll always be part of the family," Genshaft said.

Yet USF St. Petersburg professors still cast themselves as David, fending off a Goliath trying to usurp their authority.

Further turnover didn't help. Amid accreditation hiccups, leader Karen White struggled to right the ship and was replaced.

Despite the wobbles, the feisty university flourished. Scores of new faculty members and students came aboard. Academic departments solidified, and rankings grew. Up sprouted a bookstore and a residence hall.

In 2012, then-chancellor Margaret Sullivan resigned earlier than expected. A year later, Wisniewska was named leader.

State of the union

Wisniewska's resignation has faculty once again questioning Tampa's motives.

"It seems to me the storm was really just an excuse for letting her go," said Jay Sokolovsky, an anthropology professor. Perhaps, he suggested, St. Petersburg was growing too independent.

No, officials said. Leaders at both schools said the relationship is built on positive intent, and that what benefits St. Petersburg benefits Tampa, too.

They also said that Genshaft consulted with trustees and the St. Petersburg board, and that her decision centered fully on student safety.

"There's nothing more important than our students," said Stephanie Goforth, a trustee and chairwoman of the St. Petersburg campus board.

Challenges lie ahead as St. Petersburg regains its footing.

Tadlock had been working with Wisniewska to boost St. Petersburg's programs and retention. Students often cite a lack of their desired major when transferring away.

Wisniewska had also championed a goal to enroll 10,000 students by 2024, but trustees have suggested pausing that expansion to focus on student quality.

There's also the eternal question of autonomy.

"I still think there's a feeling that there's not complete independence," said Justice, the county commissioner.

Sullivan, the retired senator, said simply: "The priorities of the University of South Florida are in Tampa."

Arsenault, the outspoken professor, said even people hired as "Tampa minions" can't help but shift their loyalty to St. Petersburg.

"It's like the place puts a spell on them," he said. "But in the end it probably means their demise sooner or later."

Professors have lamented the loss of Wisniewska, whom many saw as a crucial force for stability.

"Sophia helped us form our original identity really, really well," said journalism chairwoman Deni Elliott. "We were all working on how to do that and simultaneously to be good team members of the USF system."

Last week, with punctured pride, Wisniewska sounded like she was still one of them, often saying "we" as she spoke of her former school.

"We're still in our infancy, but we're making tremendous progress," she said. "I feel we are an institution on the move."

Information from Times files was used in this report. Contact Claire McNeill at (727) 893-8321 or