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Hurricane Evacuation Costs USF St. Pete Chancellor Her Job

Sep 19, 2017

Regional Chancellor Sophia Wisniewska's split with the University of South Florida St. Petersburg came as a result from how she handled student evacuations in the run-up to Hurricane Irma - and where she said she was during the storm itself.

In a voluntary resignation negotiated between Wisniewska and the university, neither side admits any wrongdoing.

However, an earlier draft letter from USF System President Judy Genshaft accused Wisniewska of a "lack of leadership" that "created an intolerable safety risk to (USF) students" - charges that Wisniewska denied.

Genshaft's Letter
In her draft letter to Wisniewska, Genshaft said that when she announced the cancellation of classes on Sept. 6, students at USF St. Petersburg who didn't want to leave the area were welcome to come to the Tampa campus, since it's an inland designated county shelter site.

However, students still stayed at USFSP, and Wisniewska didn't order the evacuation of students until Sept. 8, when she received a written legal option telling her she had the legal authority to do so.

Ten students had to be evacuated from a residence hall Sept. 9, two days after Governor Rick Scott had ordered state universities closed.

In addition, an email sent after 11 p.m. on Sept. 9 from Wisniewska to Genshaft seemed to indicate that she had visited campus and was still in the area.

Hi Judy, As I walked around the USFSP campus, I heard more birds chirping than students talking. The campus is very quiet. I stopped to speak with a student studying for her MCATs, listened to two skateboarders discuss environmental issues, and peeked into the Tavern as they were preparing to close for the weekend. I also stopped by police services. All quiet before the storm. How is everything on the Tampa campus? We at St. Petersburg are hoping that Irma will be kind. Stay safe. Sophia

However, an email the next day said she had evacuated to Atlanta - a move Wisniewska did not tell university officials about until then.

Wisniewska's Response
On Sept. 15, after being informed of USF's plan to fire her, Wisniewska sent a reply to Genshaft from her lawyer's office.

Wisniewska said that she had decided on Sept. 6 to close the USFSP residence halls the next day, but was overruled in a phone call from Genshaft's chief of staff, Cynthia Visot, who Wisniewska said indicated the halls couldn't close without a mandatory evacuation order from Pinellas County authorities.

Wisniewska said she was contacted again by Visot late in the evening on Sept. 8 and, this time, told to close the halls. Wisniewska pointed out the president's earlier order and also indicated that Zone B, the level the halls are in, were not under mandatory evacuation orders at that time.

She also said that she wanted legal guidance to provide students who did not want to leave.

That guidance quickly came in, but because it was so late in the evening, Wisniewska said the decision was made to have the ten remaining students leave by noon Sept. 9. She added that when the mandatory evacuation order for Zone B was issued that day, USFSP was in compliance.

As for the Atlanta trip, Wisniewska said she left on the evening Sept. 9 after making sure residence halls were closed and the campus' emergency management team had clear direction. She said she was in contact with essential staff throughout the storm, and then chartered a private plane on Sept. 12 to return to Florida and help arrange the reopening of campus.

What's Next
Under terms of the voluntary resignation agreement, Wisniewska will stay off campus for the rest of the semester to prepare for an online teaching and research assignment at USFSP next spring.

She will also be paid based on her current salary of $265,000 until 60 days after her Sept. 18 resignation. After that, she will be paid on her faculty salary rate until she leaves USF on May 1, 2018. If she takes another job before then, the pay will stop.

Wisniewska is also able to collect 20 weeks severance and an annual leave payout.

She's been replaced, on an interim basis, by Dr. Martin Tadlock, Regional Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs at USF St. Petersburg. He's being assisted by Dr. William Hogarth, a former Interim Regional Chancellor of USFSP and former Director of the Florida Institute of Oceanography.

There's no timetable on when a replacement will be named.