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University of South Florida St. Petersburg Official Resigns After Fleeing Campus Ahead of Irma

Regional Chancellor Sophia Wisniewska resigned after it appeared she was hunkering down on campus ahead of Irma but had actually fled to Atlanta.
University of South Florida St. Petersburg
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A Florida college chancellor was abruptly forced out Monday after appearing to have always been on campus before Hurricane Irma to check on students, when she actually had fled the state.

As the historic storm loomed, Sophia Wisniewska, the regional chancellor of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, sent an email to her boss saying that all was well on the waterfront campus.

"As I walked around the USFSP campus, I heard more birds chirping than students talking," she wrote to the university's president, Judy Genshaft, on the night of Sept. 9 after Genshaft requested a status update, according to emails provided to NBC News on Tuesday.

Wisniewska added that she had spoken with a student studying for her MCATs and peeked into the campus bar before it closed: "All quiet before the storm."

University of South Florida St. PetersburgGoogle Street View

The following morning, as Irma started to whip Florida as a Category 4 storm, Wisniewska sent another email saying dorms were locked up and empty. It ended with: "P.S. Last night, I arrived in Atlanta, where I will stay for the next two days," The Tampa Bay Times reported.

That caused confusion among officials at the Tampa-based university, who were under the impression that Wisniewska was hunkering down in St. Petersburg and did not know whom she had appointed as an emergency contact in her absence.

And by that point, the situation had become dire: Irma's projected path had shifted, and forecasts suggested it was going to hit St. Petersburg harder than initially feared.

Related: Florida Begins to Recuperate in the Aftermath of Irma

Classes had been canceled ahead of the storm, but students were not initially ordered to evacuate.

The emails show Wisniewska asked on Sept. 6 if she had the legal authority to order students to evacuate; at that point, with the forecast for Irma trending away from St. Petersburg, the university president didn't agree to close the residence halls.

Ten student holdouts remained in the dorms. The campus ordered them to leave after Wisniewska communicated with the university's general counsel, Gerald Solis, who told her students should be evacuated if "there is good cause to believe there is a genuine danger."

Genshaft slammed Wisniewska for failing to "reassess and respond to a worsening situation" in her draft termination letter and excoriated her for evacuating herself, but not ordering students to leave until she heard back from the lawyer.

NBC News was not able to reach Wisniewska, who negotiated a resignation on Monday as Genshaft moved to fire her for creating "an intolerable safety risk to our students and the USFSP community," according to her letter. The letter was sent to Wisniewska, but termination wasn't formally issued because Wisniewska resigned instead, a university official said.

In a Sept. 15 letter objecting to criticism of how she handled the hurricane, Wisniewska responded: "Essential staff was in place and I was in contact with them throughout the storm." She added that she chartered a private plane on Sept. 12 so that she could return to Florida "as soon as possible."

Ultimately, Irma didn't bring the worst-case scenario to much of Florida that it had been forecast to, and the St. Petersburg campus didn't suffer any damage.

But university officials refused to forgive Wisniewska.

"Your performance during Hurricane Irma revealed that you did not exercise, or do not have, the requisite level of competence to perform this essential function of the Regional Chancellor position," Genshaft wrote.

"I expect a competent Regional Chancellor to be able to process this weather information and respond to the evolving emergency," she added.

Wisniewska argued that she had wanted to evacuate students earlier and that Genshaft disagreed, but changed her mind the following day, when the forecast worsened. She said she checked in regularly with personnel during the storm.

"I had my finger on the pulse of the campus through the storm and as it weakened," she wrote.

As part of the resignation agreement, Wisniewska will leave her position immediately and loses tenure. She is staying off campus for the rest of the semester to prepare for an online teaching assignment in the spring, the university said.

In a text to The Tampa Bay Times, Wisniewska said she "did nothing to warrant firing for cause."

"I strongly reject any question of my leadership during Irma and my leadership during my tenure at USFSP," she said.

The newspaper described her as well liked by local leaders and students alike, who were stunned by her departure.

Dr. Martin Tadlock, regional vice chancellor of academic affairs at USF St. Petersburg, is now serving as interim regional chancellor.

"I am confident that we will not lose any momentum in moving USF St. Petersburg forward," Genshaft said in an email to faculty and staff over the weekend announcing Tadlock's appointment.