With Hurricane Irma menacing Florida, the leader of a state university campus decided on her course of action: Flee. As the storm approached earlier this month, Sophia Wisniewska dashed off an email to her boss. It included a description of the campus and indicated all was quiet at the University of South Florida at St. Petersburg.
It did not include any indication that Wisniewska was decamping for Atlanta.
“As I walked around the USFSP campus, I heard more birds chirping than students talking,” read Wisniewska’s email, which was sent at 11:18 p.m. Sept. 9. “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.”
Now, Wisniewska is out of her job as regional chancellor at USFSP, forced to negotiate her resignation. USF officials this week released a copy of the resignation agreement to The Washington Post, as well as a draft of a scathing termination letter from USF System President Judy Genshaft.
In the letter, which the Tampa Bay Times reports was never officially sent, Genshaft blasts Wisniewska for her performance during the dangerous storm, writing that she was disappointed in Wisniewska’s “lack of leadership” in response to the hurricane.
“Your conduct created an intolerable safety risk to our students and the USFSP community,” she wrote.
Wisniewska defended herself in a text message sent to the Tampa Bay Times.
“I strongly reject any question of my leadership during Irma and my leadership during my tenure at USFSP,” Wisniewska told the news outlet. “Certainly, I did nothing to warrant firing for cause. . . . I resigned this evening without hard feelings and with optimism for the future. My only regret is that I was unable to achieve all of our goals for USFSP.”
The resignation agreement indicates that neither side acknowledges or alleges wrongdoing.
Genshaft is critical of Wisniewska in the draft termination letter, accusing her of failing to promptly react to shifting weather, a delay that Genshaft claimed stalled residence-hall evacuations. She also chided Wisniewska for evacuating Florida without properly notifying the system president.
“No one is expected to remain vulnerable in a dangerous situation, but it is expected that the regional chancellor will recognize that a clear chain of command must be established and that emergency operations and communications expertise are vital before, during and after a natural disaster,” Genshaft wrote.
Emails in Wisniewska’s personnel file cast light on the confusion that unfolded as the storm threatened the waterfront campus.
“I’d like to know if you’ve walked your campuses and the status of those physically on campus,” read an email from Genshaft, sent about 4 p.m. Sept. 9. “What is your current status as you settle in for the next couple days?”
Wisniewska’s response to Genshaft arrived hours later, at 11:18 p.m. That’s when she described a quiet campus with “more birds chirping than students talking.” But Wisniewska sent another email early the next morning. In that note, she explained that 10 students who had been waiting for evacuation orders had places to stay during the storm and that food was being provided for staffers, police and emergency workers.
“We will have another weather update at noon. Stay safe,” she wrote at the end of the email, before adding: “P.S.: Last night, I arrived in Atlanta where I will stay for the next two days.”
Less than an hour later, Wisniewska received a response, which appears to be from Genshaft’s chief of staff.
“Are you in St. Pete?” it read.
In a response to the draft termination letter, Wisniewska pushed back against the characterization of her actions by Genshaft, writing that she had previously been told dorms couldn’t close without an evacuation order and she had simply waited for legal guidance. Wisniewska became regional chancellor of USF’s St. Petersburg campus in 2013, according to the school’s website, and earned $289,075 a year. She previously served as chancellor at Pennsylvania State University’s Brandywine campus and was dean and chief executive at Temple University’s Ambler, Pa., campus.
Wisniewska also wrote that she decided to leave the state after realizing that her plans for the storm were “no longer realistic,” because of Irma’s projected path and storm-surge concerns. She left for Atlanta on the evening of Sept. 9, after making sure dorms were closed and an emergency management team had direction.
“I had my finger on the pulse of the campus through the storm and as it weakened,” she wrote.