Forced exit for campus CEO

When USF-St. Pete’s Campus Executive Officer Bill Heller set off on June 7 to attend a meeting with USF President Judy Genshaft, his intention was to agree to step down during the next 12 months. It was then that he saw his resignation reported in the St. Petersburg Times.

Heller said he was informed during a meeting with USF President Judy Genshaft a week previously that Genshaft and some members of the St. Pete campus board of directors held concerns about him continuing as CEO. According to Heller, Genshaft asked him to devise a plan to deal with those issues and to consider a timetable for his stepping down.

“Before I had a chance for the second meeting, the Times had broken the story,” said Heller. “If there was going to be a good discussion and a way out, (the story) made it very difficult.”

Genshaft publicly confirmed Heller’s resignation June 7 following her second meeting with him, a meeting that was also attended by campus board chair Ann Duncan. According to Michael Reich, director for media relations, the decision was mutually agreed upon.

Heller, who has headed the campus since 1992, said that prior to his first meeting with Genshaft, the campus board had never informed him of its dissatisfaction with his leadership.

“I have worked for a number of boards; this is the first board where I have never had the privilege of a formal evaluation,” Heller said. “I respect the board, but I wish there had been a better way of dealing with this.”

Heller, 66, will formally step down as CEO on Aug. 31. Since the announcement of his impending departure, Heller has been inundated with calls, letters and e-mails from well-wishers and people expressing surprise and consternation at his departure. For Heller, the hurried conclusion of his tenure as CEO is a further cause for regret.

“(My intention was) to offer resignation in a year or so, so I could phase out gradually so I could say goodbye to the campus in a formal way,” Heller said. “To meet (the board’s) wishes, but not do this thing so abruptly as to cause pain to the campus.”

A further unforeseen repercussion was the loss of the opportunity to lease part of the Bayfront Center for use as a conference site following a vote by the St. Petersburg Council Tuesday. Council members, many of whom held Heller in high regard, cited the absence of Heller as grounds for concern over the future direction of the campus.

Council member Virginia Littrell said campus board member Jeff Hoenink attempted to contact all the members of the council following its vote canceling the referendum necessary for USF to lease the center. According to Littrell, Hoenink informed her that it was the campus board and not Genshaft that forced Heller to resign.

“The whole way that this has happened has not pleased me,” said Littrell. “It’s where I went to school; it’s where my mother went to school. I care a great deal about that campus.”

But not all the board members were even aware that there was an issue with Heller’s future. Board member David Welch confirmed his earlier comments made to the Times when he informed Littrell that no one on the board had spoken to him regarding Heller´s leadership.

Hoenink refused to discuss the specific reservations that led to Heller’s departure and refused to answer whether the board had ever made Heller aware of its concerns.

“I can only speak for myself, not other board members. We think the world of Bill Heller, but we want to take St. Pete much more in an advanced direction,” he said. “I came to the conclusion that we needed to take the leadership to a much higher level.”

Genshaft could not be reached for comment. In response to questions regarding board members’ role in Heller’s departure, Reich maintained that Heller had not been forced to step down.

“I would say it was inaccurate that he was forced to resign. Ann Duncan was there, and she agreed with the decision,” Reich said.

Reich did agree that Genshaft was in favor of a change in campus leadership.

“It’s no secret the president has said she thinks new leadership will be good,” he said.

Heller said the last seven days were a very difficult time, but that the support he had received from so many people helped him through what was a unique experience for him.

“I’ve never lost a job. There’s a first for everything, and this was my first. I wasn’t expecting it, I guess,” he said. “At a gubernatorial presentation, the people stood up and gave me a standing ovation. I received 300 e-mails. People came by to say they were shocked, stunned; the campus is certainly shocked. Last Friday, we kind of hurt together.”

Despite the loss of a job he said he loved, Heller said he bears no grudges against anyone and that he still wishes to see the campus, and the university as a whole, flourish.

“I support the president; I’ll support the university.Whatever happens to me I’ll still do that,” Heller said. “(Genshaft) has agreed to endow a chair over here with my name at the campus. It isn’t exactly what I would have wanted, but I feel I can look at that.”