ST. PETERSBURG – It has been two turbulent weeks since Bill Heller’s surprise announcement that he would step down as USF-St. Petersburg campus executive officer after 10 years.
In the days since the announcement, revelations have arisen from the water-front campus that Heller was forced from his position by USF President Judy Genshaft and members of the campus’ board of directors.
On Tuesday, Genshaft faced about 100 of St. Petersburg’s faculty and students, some of whom have criticized her, to name Ralph Wilcox as interim CEO. Wilcox will take over the position in August and hold it during the year it will take to find a permanent replacement.
Wilcox, who has been an American Council on Education Fellow working in Genshaft’s office for the last year, said he hopes to lead USF-St. Petersburg toward its long-sought goal of receiving separate accreditation and autonomy from USF’s Tampa campus.
“Colleagues of mine many miles away were quite intrigued and wanted to know why USF-St. Petersburg isn’t accredited,” Wilcox told the audience. “I think that’s a very, very important message and responsibility that we must all take on as members of the USF-St. Petersburg community to get the word out clearly and accurately that indeed USF-St. Petersburg is accredited, does meet and far exceeds, in most cases, the standards for regional accreditation that is so critical to faculty members, staff and most certainly students.”
Before coming to USF as an ACE fellow, Wilcox worked at both the University of Memphis, where he chaired a department, and the University of Houston, as well as other colleges nationwide. During the 1992-1993 academic year, he was nominated to Who’s Who in American Education.
Wilcox said, after his introduction, he was excited for the interim opportunity. He said he worried stepping into the position in the midst of the controversy surrounding Heller’s departure.
“I feel quite comfortable,” Wilcox said. “It’s not uncommon in universities of this type to face tension, particularly in periods of transition and change.”
Heller was present and introduced at the beginning of the proceeding. He said later, however, that he left shortly thereafter.
“I tried to let (that) day be his day,” Heller said.
Heller said he knew Wilcox and knew of his experience through shared colleagues at the University of Memphis. Heller said he wants the transition to Wilcox’s administration to be smooth.
“I’ve told him I’ll help him any way I can,” he said. “I’ll help him avoid surprises.”
Heller said the campus, which, during his tenure has seen growth to more than 4,000 students and will soon see the construction of its first dorms, will retain its momentum. He said he will now help the campus heal until he steps down in August.
“I think this has been very hard on (Genshaft), just as it has been hard on me,” Heller said. “It’s in the best interest of the campus to move ahead and get on with the good things we’ve been doing.”
Genshaft told the audience that a search committee for Heller’s permanent successor will be created in August or September. The committee, Genshaft said, will be made up of 15 to 18 members, and will hopefully make a selection in about a year.
During Tuesday’s presentation, Wilcox and Genshaft faced questions from the audience. About 10 questions were asked, but only one audience member directly questioned Genshaft on the dubious nature of Heller’s departure.
A man who identified himself as a student involved in Student Government told Genshaft that he did not think she was open enough with the students.
“It seems at this point there isn’t a high level of trust with you in regards to how you’ve handled the situation such as getting information to us,” the student said. “It seems we get information from reporters, which is a sad way to get information. I just want to know what you’re going to do to regain our trust.”
Genshaft was noticeably upset by the student’s question. She answered sternly.
“I think that’s an overstatement very honestly,” Genshaft said. “I think people who have watched me over the past couple of years can see my commitment to USF-St. Petersburg, and with that to make that kind of a statement is not only insulting, but I think it’s really wrong.”
Genshaft told the student she had spent time at the campus and in the community. She said she wanted to see the campus move forward.
“You can chose to believe in it or not as far as I’m concerned,” Genshaft said. “But I do care about this campus.”
Genshaft said she wanted to see USF-St. Petersburg receive its autonomy.
Heller said, while he had departed before the question was asked, he heard about Genshaft’s response.
“I understand there was that kind of question that caused her I think some concern,” Heller said. “I really do think she’s trying to get things back on track. I hope that’s possible.”
After Tuesday’s introduction, Genshaft defended her position on Heller’s resignation. While Heller has said he is leaving the position earlier than he had wanted, Genshaft said he was talking of leaving before she made her decision.
“He was the one that was talking about stepping down and it was just a matter of timing,” Genshaft said. “I really believe that you make your changes in the summer so that you have a good academic year, you have a continuity through the academic year.”
When asked who initiated the process of deciding on Heller’s departure, Genshaft’s response was unclear.
“He’s been talking about it. He was the one who was talking about it. We discussed this, with the chairman of the campus board, myself and he discussed this over time,” Genshaft said. “We’re moving forward. That’s what’s really important.”
Heller’s resignation has not, however, gone unnoticed in the St. Petersburg community. Soon after the announcement, the St. Petersburg city council voted 5-1 to postpone a referendum that would have allowed for a long-term USF lease of the Bayfront Center.
Heller said, during his final month as CEO and in the months after his departure, he will continue to heal hurt relationships.
“I want to help everyone I know through this tough time,” Heller said. “This chapter, I want to close it and move on with the next one.”