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Change at USF leaves unease

Officials say the loss of the St. Petersburg campus' chief will not harm its accreditation. But on campus, misgivings persist.

By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 8, 2002


Officials say the loss of the St. Petersburg campus' chief will not harm its accreditation. But on campus, misgivings persist.

Bill Heller said he knew he eventually would step aside as the longtime leader of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. But not this soon.

Last week, USF president Judy Genshaft suggested he allow someone new to run the school as it undergoes massive changes and struggles to gain independence from the main campus in Tampa.

"It's not really what I had planned," Heller said Friday. "But this is the decision."

Genshaft announced Heller's resignation as vice president and campus executive officer Friday morning after they spent more than an hour behind closed doors hashing out his future as a professor with the head of USF St. Petersburg's governing board. She had not planned to announce it this soon, but word of Heller's imminent resignation accelerated the timetable.

The news spread quickly through the 4,000-student campus in downtown St. Petersburg and across Pinellas County. Professors and community leaders expressed surprise and dismay that their popular leader was stepping down.

"Administrators, as a general rule, are not beloved. But I've never encountered an administrator that inspired so much affection and loyalty," said Ray Arsenault, a history professor at the St. Petersburg campus for 22 years. "He's been such a leader that it's hard to imagine the campus without him."

Heller, 66, who has led the campus through a decade of growth, relinquishes his administrative duties Aug. 31 but will continue to teach special education classes. He will earn $150,000, slightly more than he makes now.

Genshaft will appoint an interim CEO, and plans to launch a nationwide search that could be completed in the spring.

The move comes at a crucial time for the campus, which is off to a rocky start in its effort to win separate accreditation from the Tampa campus. Some faculty members worry the change in leadership could hurt that effort.

"It's not clear to me that whoever comes in will be committed to this," said Ellen Hufnagel, a professor and head of the Campus Faculty Council. "There are certainly a lot of questions today."

After a failed attempt to win complete independence, the St. Petersburg school is seeking separate accreditation, a milestone in defining its own identity. To gain accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the campus must prove its autonomy from Tampa.

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