PETERSBURG, Fla. — As the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus was preparing for a hit from Hurricane Irma, its leader suggested to her boss in an email that she was still there when she had actually left the state, a newspaper reported.
Sophia Wisniewska, regional chancellor for the Tampa-based university, negotiated a resignation Monday as university officials were set to fire her for incompetence and “lack of leadership.”
Wisniewska insinuated to her boss via emails that she remained on campus as Irma approached, even noting that things were quiet and she could hear the birds chirping there – but she was really in Atlanta, The Tampa Bay Times reported .
She defended herself Monday. In a text message, she told the Times, “I strongly reject any question of my leadership during Irma.”
Judy Genshaft, president of the USF system, cancelled classes Sept. 6 as Irma appeared to be headed elsewhere, but she kept the dorms open in both Tampa and St. Petersburg on Florida’s Gulf coast. Wisniewska says she wanted to close the St. Petersburg campus, but was overruled because evacuations had not been ordered.
The next night, Irma’s track shifted west, elevating the danger for students. Officials said Genshaft expected Wisniewska to adjust to the changes, even though there were still no county-issued evacuation orders. Instead the chancellor pushed back when asked to close the dorms. She wanted legal advice about her authority to order students to leave.
On Monday, Genshaft wrote, “I expect a competent regional chancellor to be able to process this weather information and respond to the evolving emergency.” Genshaft wrote that the issue isn’t “legal authority,” but “it is leadership competence in an emergency situation.”
The 10 remaining students in the dorms were ordered out on the morning of Sept. 9.
The university president emailed Wisniewska on Sept. 9, asking if she’d walked around the campus, and wanted to know the status of those remaining on campus. She also inquired about Wisniewska’s “current status as you settle in for the next couple of days.”
According to emails in Wisniewska’s personnel file, the chancellor responded late that night, saying she heard more birds chirping than students talking as she walked around the campus. In the email she noted that she talked to a student who was studying for a test and peeked into a campus tavern before it closed for the weekend.
Wisniewska never told Genshaft that she was leaving Florida, according to the newspaper.
On Sept. 10, Wisniewska emailed that she arrived in Atlanta the night before and planned to stay for two days.
In her resignation letter, she noted that she left only after closing the dorms and making sure the staff was ready. She said she had “her finger on the pulse of the campus through the storm and as it weakened.” She said she held a teleconference with staff to discuss damage before chartering a private plane to return.
“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 students first,” Wisniewska wrote.
According to the agreement, she’ll vacate her post immediately. She’ll be paid her current salary of $265,000 for 60 days. After that, she’ll be converted to faculty salary rate until May 1 when she will leave the school.