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News Clips 05/16/2013
Embattled FAU president quits after series of controversies
Source: Palm Beach Post, 05/16/13
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By George Bennett
BOCA RATON — Florida Atlantic University President Mary Jane Saunders is resigning, citing the “fiercely negative media coverage” the school has received this year after a series of high-profile controversies.
“It is with a heavy heart that I am resigning as president of Florida Atlantic University and returning to a faculty position at the university,” Saunders said in a letter dated Tuesday and released Wednesday morning. Her resignation takes effect in 90 days.
FAU has been rocked by unwanted national attention this year for a plan to name its football stadium after a private prison contractor, a classroom exercise in which students were asked to write “Jesus” on a piece of paper and step on it and a tenured professor’s suggestions that the Newtown, Conn., massacre and Boston Marathon bombings might have been hoaxes.
Saunders herself came under fire after her car brushed against a student who was protesting FAU’s decision to name its stadium after prison contractor GEO Group. After weeks of protests, GEO Group in April withdrew its $6 million pledge to the university.
“There is no doubt the recent controversies have been significant and distracting to all members of the university community,” Saunders’ resignation letter says. “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.”
Saunders’ base pay as FAU president is $345,000. Her contract calls for her to make 80 percent of that figure, or $276,000, during her first three years as a faculty member.
FAU Board of Trustees Chairman Anthony Barbar said he accepted Saunders’ resignation reluctantly.
“I regret that she felt it necessary to resign. I’m grateful for everything that she’s done for the university during her tenure. We have had a lot of accomplishments,” Barbar said.
Barbar said he never suggested to Saunders that she leave and, as far as he knew, no other trustees asked her to step down.
Barbar credited Saunders with presiding over the opening of FAU’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine, helping attract more than $50 million in donations to the school and boosting freshman applications and overall enrollment. FAU’s student body now tops 30,000.
Barbar noted that Saunders oversaw development of a five-year strategic plan for FAU and the completion of several campus construction projects, including a $99 million student housing complex and the $63.5 million stadium.
FAU will likely have an interim president for the 2013-14 academic year while it searches for a replacement to Saunders, Barbar said.
Saunders, 62, was provost at Cleveland State University before the trustees selected her in March 2010 to be FAU president with a starting salary of $345,000.
“This institution is just poised for greatness,” Saunders said when she took the job.
But while FAU made strides under Saunders, its image took a series of hits this year and Saunders and the administration frequently came under fire for the way they responded.
In January, CNN and other outlets highlighted James Tracy, an FAU associate professor of communications, who questioned on his personal website whether the shooting deaths of 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., really happened. Tracy has also questioned the injury and death reports from the Boston Marathon bombings, suggesting the attack might have been a “mass-casualty drill” with “play actors” posing as victims.
Saunders and others have stressed that Tracy’s writings were not connected to FAU. The school reprimanded Tracy in March, accusing him of not making it clear enough that his website is separate from the university. Tracy is contesting the reprimand.
In February, FAU’s Board of Trustees ignited a firestorm by accepting a pledge of $6 million over 12 years from GEO Group, which was to have its name attached to the football stadium. A group of students and others protested, criticizing the Boca Raton-based prison contractor’s human rights record at facilities it manages.
While Saunders was leaving a March meeting at FAU’s Jupiter campus, a police report said about 20 students protesting the GEO Group deal surrounded Saunders car and disobeyed orders to move away. One student suffered a bruise after she was brushed by Saunders’ right-front mirror when the president pulled out of the parking lot. Saunders did not stop, saying she didn’t realize her car had touched anyone.
FAU made national headlines again in March, after a student in an intercultural communications class complained about an exercise in which students were asked to write Jesus’ name on a piece of paper and then step on it. As described in the manual for a widely used textbook, the activity was intended to demonstrate that “even though symbols are arbitrary, they take on very strong and emotional meanings.”
The university initially defended the exercise when a local TV station reported on it. But after the story went viral over the next 48 hours, FAU reversed itself and apologized for the activity and removed it from its curriculum. That response, made without consulting faculty, led a faculty committee to make a preliminary finding last month that FAU had compromised academic freedom.
While the faculty panel conducts a more detailed probe of the academic freedom issue, the state university system is investigating the “Jesus” incident as well after Gov. Rick Scott asked for a report on the incident and assurances from FAU that “this type of ‘lesson’ will not occur again.”
Saunders’ resignation drew a variety of responses.
“I was surprised and disappointed to learn that President Saunders will be stepping down at FAU,” said University of Florida President Bernie Machen. “She is a valued, trusted colleague who has provided great service to her university and higher education in Florida. I will greatly miss her and hope she can remain in the state to share her perspective and expertise.”
Chris Robe, the leader of the faculty union at FAU, said some faculty members wanted to hold a vote of no confidence in Saunders but others blamed members of the board of trustees for FAU’s difficulties this year.
“I don’t know if it’s going to solve anything,” Robe said of Saunders’ resignation.
Recent FAU graduate Gonzalo Vizcardo, a leader of protests against the stadium naming, called Saunders’ resignation “a good first step for FAU to course-correct and return on a path of excellence in teaching and research. Saunders’ presidency was simply unsustainable; she had long since lost the support of students, faculty, staff, and alumni, and there were already discussions of holding no-confidence votes in the fall in various FAU bodies. Her repeated mistakes and systemic failures of leadership put into question her ability to lead FAU.”
Rev. Mark Boykin, pastor of the Church of All Nations near FAU’s campus, led a 150-person march last month to protest the “Jesus” exercise and call for Saunders’ removal.
“It’s certainly not any time to spike the ball,” Boykin said. He said the “Jesus” controversy and its handling was merely one factor contributing to a “loss of influence of credibility” for Saunders.
“Had this been one or two things, maybe she could sustain it, but not this many lapses of judgment,” Boykin said.
Barbar acknowledged FAU could have done a better job handling some of the recent controversies.
“Were mistakes made in the last few months? Absolutely. What we’re going to do is learn from those and correct them,” Barbar said. But he said his overall view of FAU remains upbeat.
“FAU is a wonderful place and there are so many exciting things happening here that I believe our next president is going to be thrilled to build on the accomplishments that President Saunders started,” Barbar said.
In her resignation letter, Saunders said she looks forward to less controversial times for FAU.
“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 said.
Staff writer John Lantigua and staff researcher Michelle Quigley contributed to this story.