USF leader plans to step down
By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- The longtime leader of the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg is stepping down. The only question is when.
Bill Heller, who has led the campus through a decade of tremendous change and growth, will discuss his future this morning with USF president Judy Genshaft and Ann Wilkins Duncan, chairwoman of the St. Petersburg campus' governing board.
Genshaft said Thursday that one option being considered involves Heller, 66, resigning as vice president and campus executive officer but remaining a professor of special education.
Campus observers, including some state lawmakers, say Genshaft and the campus' five-member regional board want Heller to resign his administrative post.
"I had heard he was in an unfortunate position," said Sen. Don Sullivan, R-St. Petersburg. The president and the board "felt he needed to be more outspoken and forceful."
Genshaft would not comment on that.
The move comes at a crucial time for the 4,000-student campus that is off to a rocky start in trying to win separate accreditation from the main campus in Tampa. The school will spend the next few years trying to balance accreditation hurdles alongside expansion plans.
"This is a whole new direction for USF St. Petersburg," said Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg. "I don't know if Bill Heller is the man to do that or whether he wants to do that. Does he really want to (do that) after 10 hard years?"
Heller could not be reached for comment but said earlier this week that he didn't know how long he would remain CEO after his wife, Jeanne, retires this year as an elementary school teacher. He first met with Genshaft last week to discuss his future.
Duncan, also a member of the USF Board of Trustees, declined to talk Thursday about Heller's future, but acknowledged that would be a topic of conversation with Genshaft and Heller today.
Heller serves at the pleasure of the president but new laws creating the St. Petersburg regional board requires Genshaft hire and fire campus CEOs in consultation with board members. Genshaft said she has spoken to board members about Heller's future.
But member David Welch, a former St. Petersburg City Council member, said Thursday that no one had talked to him. Other members could not be reached.
Heller, named dean in 1992, has overseen an enrollment boom and a massive expansion into downtown that will soon bring dormitories to the campus. His title recently changed to campus executive officer, though he still is referred to as dean on and off the campus.
After a failed attempt to completely sever ties with the Tampa campus, the St. Petersburg school is seeking separate accreditation, a milestone in defining its independence and perhaps even a step toward complete independence.
To gain accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the campus needs to prove its autonomy from Tampa in finances, curriculum and promotions, among other areas.
Association officials recently said they are concerned that the campus will not be financially independent and that the head of the campus still will answer to the USF president in Tampa.
Genshaft said Thursday she did not plan to try to change the governance structure at the St. Petersburg campus any more than it has been changed, and that Heller's departure does not have anything to do with the accreditation process. She and Heller went to Atlanta this spring to discuss the accrediting group's concerns.
Heller, a fixture in St. Petersburg civic life, sits on various nonprofit boards, meets regularly with Mayor Rick Baker and chaired the task force to save Sunken Gardens.
He also made it a priority to strengthen the campus' civic involvement, and worked with the city to coordinate economic and educational help for city residents after racial disturbances rocked nearby neighborhoods in 1996.
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