Unease follows moves by Genshaft
By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer
University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft was seated at the head of a conference table, surrounded by senior faculty members of the St. Petersburg campus who were lobbing pointed questions about the future.
The meeting had been called because of the sudden departure of Bill Heller as the longtime leader of the campus. Some of the people in the room said it was obvious that Genshaft had ousted Heller, but the president insisted that retirement was Heller's idea.
They bored in, pleading with the president to level with them. One suggested that their trust in her would hinge on her candor at that moment.
"We were just hoping for a more upfront statement," said anthropology professor Jay Sokolovsky.
Instead, Genshaft refused to confirm what Heller already had acknowledged publicly.
It was the latest example of what critics say is a disturbing pattern: Too often, Genshaft says one thing and does another, or doesn't say anything at all.
Some of her actions that have sparked criticism:
Genshaft told faculty members she would reinstate Sami Al-Arian, the outspoken computer science professor who has been investigated for alleged ties to terrorists. Then she announced that she planned to fire him. The action came after controversial statements Al-Arian made on national television, but Genshaft says Al-Arian violated his contract and threatened the safety of the campus. His dismissal likely would lead to censure by a national education organization.
Genshaft said she was considering granting autonomy to the St. Petersburg campus without separate accreditation, but the next day renewed her commitment to separate accreditation after the St. Petersburg Times reported her remarks. She insists that her position did not change. Faculty members disagree.
Last week, she recommended Heller's temporary replacement without the giving the faculty a chance to offer input as she had promised. Ralph Wilcox would be the first campus chief hired without formal input from faculty and staff.
"Given how all this has played out, her credibility can be called into question at times -- and not just with me," said St. Petersburg City Council member Jay Lasita, who was upset about the way Heller's departure was handled.
Controversy already has brought Genshaft to the St. Petersburg campus twice in recent weeks, and she plans two more trips this week. That's an unusual amount of attention from the president of Florida's second-largest university, which has more than 37,000 students and four campuses.
"I do get a feeling there is a negative attitude developing," said Roy Weatherford, president of USF's faculty union. "There's a weariness, an uncertainty setting in, and a growing distrust."
While Genshaft has her critics, she also has had staunch supporters since she became president in March 2000. Her problems are typical for any university president, they say.
"I have no problems with what she is doing," said state Sen. Les Miller, D-Tampa, a USF graduate who sits on a legislative education committee. "She's going to make mistakes. We all make mistakes. That's just the way it is."
The USF board of trustees stands solidly behind her. Some have reacted angrily to the criticism and resulting publicity. "I don't know where it is coming from," said board member Lee Arnold. "It's stirring a pot that doesn't need to be stirred."
Members of the St. Petersburg campus board also support Genshaft, though some acknowledge that there are problems.
St. Petersburg board member Jeff Huenink said he had heard complaints from the faculty and the community but blamed the board. He has started meeting with community leaders, including St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, to smooth things over.
"We didn't communicate well enough in terms of a number of issues," said Huenink, a former legislator. "Perception is reality, and there's a perception that exists out there that we need to change."
Genshaft has not returned repeated calls from the Times for more than a week. USF spokesman Michael Reich declined to comment.
It's been a tough first two years for Genshaft, 54, who moved to USF from New York, where she was the provost of the University at Albany. It is her first stint as a university president.
First, state lawmakers tried to make the St. Petersburg campus an independent university, a move strongly opposed by the faculty. Then current and former basketball players sued USF, alleging racial discrimination in the women's basketball program. The Al-Arian case has brought the university unwanted and often unflattering national attention.
And like all university presidents in Florida, Genshaft had to learn to live with new trustees looking over her shoulder instead of the old state Board of Regents. Each university's trustees focus solely on that school, while the regents oversaw the entire system.
"For a new president to face the kind of issues she's had to face, it's more than most presidents face in their tenure in office," said Gregory Paveza, president of the USF Faculty Senate.
Now some community members say they are watching and waiting to see what Genshaft will do next. Some faculty members say she could improve her standing by reinstating Al-Arian and giving St. Petersburg faculty a big voice in a national search for a new campus leader.
State Sen. Don Sullivan, a St. Petersburg Republican who wanted USF St. Petersburg to be a separate university, said he supported Genshaft but wanted her reassurance that she was committed to separate accreditation. He made that request in writing a week ago.
"I'm supportive of her," Sullivan said last week. "But I want her to act . . . We have to start putting pressure on her."
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