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News Clips 05/16/2013
FAU searches for new leader, new image after Saunders resigns
Source: Sun Sentinel, 05/16/13
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By Scott Travis
Florida Atlantic University is looking for a new leader -- and a new public image -- after a series of controversies prompted President Mary Jane Saunders to step down on Tuesday night.
For the next few months, Dennis Crudele, senior vice president for financial affairs, will serve as acting president, although Saunders will continue to hold the title of president, said Anthony Barbar, chairman of the Board of Trustees. Crudele has been an FAU administrator in some capacity since 1987.
The trustees will name an interim president by fall, when Saunders officially steps down, at which time FAU will begin a national search for a permanent president, Barbar said. In the meantime, university officials will start discussing with students, faculty, alumni and community members what they want in a new president.
Barbar said Saunders made the decision on her own to leave.
“I’m saddened by it. President Saunders has accomplished some remarkable things in her term as president, things her successor is going to be the beneficiary of,” he said.
But many say recent controversies overshadowed the good things and they hope a new leader can help the school overcome its image problem.
The controversies include a botched stadium naming rights deal with a prison company, a faculty member questioning whether the Sandy Hook and Boston Marathon tragedies happened as reported and another instructor assigning students to “step on Jesus” during a lesson on symbolism.
Faculty and students had also criticized her for decisions last year to slash summer offerings and close or cut funding for several campuses.
Saunders coudn’t be reached for comment Wednesday. In her resignation latter, she touted her accomplishments in recent months, including opening a new medical school and stadium, increasing selectivity in admissions and achieving a perfect score on schoolwide accreditation.
But she said the negative publicity had taken a great toll on her.
“The issues and the fiercely negative media coverage have forced me to reassess my position as the president of FAU. I must make choices that are the best for the university, me and my family,” she wrote. “My hope is that in the future, news stories and public discussions about FAU will return to the accomplishments of our faculty, students and staff across all of our campuses.”
Saunders will stay at FAU as a tenured professor in the College of Science at 80 percent of her $345,000 base salary, or $276,000.
Barbar said he was not aware of any discussions for the board to terminate Saunders’ contract, which expired in 2015, and Saunders maintained in interviews she had support of the board.
But some trustees acknowledged privately they wanted her gone, blaming her lack of ability in crisis management.
For example, the university initially defended Deandre Poole, an instructor who asked students to write the name Jesus on a piece of paper and then step on it. But when the incident attracted national attention, FAU reversed course and apologized without correcting much of the misinformation reported by blogs and national media, faculty members said. Gov. Rick Scott called for an investigation of the matter.
“Hindsight is always 20-20,” Barbar said. “There are things any of us could have done differently, but I think she did the best she could.”
Faculty and trustees say the incidents have hurt FAU’s abilities to attract students, top faculty and donors, particularly after a series of protests prompted the GEO Group, a Boca Raton prison company, to withdraw its $6 million stadium donation to the FAU stadium in April.
“We’ve had nothing but bad buzz for well over a year,” said Tim Lenz, an FAU political science professor. “It’s time for us to get back on the right track. I hope this is the beginning of the process.”
Boris Bastidas, a graduate student at FAU, said Saunders had some missteps but she was also put in some difficult situations. He said it wasn’t her fault that instructors created national attention, and the Board of Trustees firmly supported the GEO Group deal.
“When there’s a lot of attention in blog posts and articles, I feel like there’s got to be a scapegoat. The message from certain people is this is a big mess. Fix it,” Bastidas said. “I guess the feeling was she didn’t. But I don’t think in a lot of cases she could have.”
Staff writer Kathleen Haughney contributed to this report.