Commentary: With politicians at helm, education takes back seat

By Thom Smith
Don’t think for a moment that Mary Jane Saunders’ resignation as president at Florida Atlantic University will allow the campus to resume its persona as a tranquil haven for higher education.
    Granted, her departure was inevitable, a fall necessitated not only by her actions but also by a board of trustees that lost sight of its mission. These are tough times, financially and politically. The governor and the Legislature may not know how to run education, but they have the money and therefore the power to control it.
    Cynical? Many university trustees are appointed because they give lots of money to candidates’ campaigns or have political capital.
    Angela Graham-West, for example, possesses impressive academic credentials — a bachelor’s degree in finance from Kansas State University, MBA from Long Island U. and Ph.D. in education back at Kansas State University — and she’s a financial adviser for Raymond James and Associates. But would Gov. Rick Scott have appointed her to FAU’s board had she not been married to then-Rep. Allen West, his Tea Party comrade-in-arms?
    Dr. Jeffrey Feingold, a Delray Beach dentist and another Scott appointee, operates seven comprehensive dental HMOs. Before he lists his academic credentials on his FAU résumé, he lists his service as chairman of the Jewish Leadership Council of the Republican Party of Florida.
    Among Scott appointees, at least Butch Teske has some experience with running a school.
The decorated Army veteran with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Murray State University in Kentucky and a doctorate in education from Nova Southeastern University was a middle school principal and later an assistant superintendent in Indian River County.
    Scott’s most recent nominee backed out when reports were published about her missteps and misdeeds. Elizabeth “Betsy” Fago Smith built an empire by taking over nursing homes in remote communities. She lived lavishly; she donated to noble causes; but she borrowed heavily and built up $110,000 in federal tax liens. In 2004 she organized a $1.5 million fundraiser for Gov. Jeb Bush, who appointed her to the state oversight panel for Scripps Research Institute in Jupiter. She gave Scripps two $1 million gifts, but in 2005, she resigned that position because of conflicts with Chairman Marshall Criser Jr., former president of the University of Florida.
    Lest we forget George Zoley. An FAU grad, dynamic chairman and CEO of Boca-based GEO Group and major contributor to political campaigns, his appointment to the board of trustees was a no-brainer for Bush.
    Zoley eventually became chairman and also headed up the search committee that hired Saunders. So who would expect her to object when his company, which runs prisons for profit, offered $6 million for naming rights to the Owls’ stadium? The administration spread its wings and hooted about the windfall.
    Students, faculty members and some community leaders struck like hawks.  GEO’s rep wasn’t something to crow about.
    In explaining her resignation, Saunders cited a “perfect storm” of bad news. The Fago Smith fiasco. Professor James Tracy’s off-the-clock suggestions that the Sandy Hook massacre and the Boston Marathon bombing were government conspiracies remain puzzling. (Does he not own a high-definition TV?)  The woeful mishandling of communications instructor Deandre Poole’s “Stomp Jesus” exercise still hasn’t been rectified.
    The latter two go to the heart of the university’s academic integrity. But in the Saunders tableau, they were eagles nibbling Prometheus’ liver. Had she handled them candidly and with conviction, those wounds would have healed.
    From the outset, instead of showing some guts, she totally ignored the crucial issues, resorting to platitudes and issuing a litany of recent FAU successes. The GEO blow was fatal.
    In a post-mortem in FAU’s student newspaper, The University Press, board Chairman Anthony Barbar offered this insight: “We’re looking for somebody that’s going to build on the trajectory that [Saunders] started. We’ll be looking for somebody with vision, somebody that’s able to deal with the various stakeholders in the university: students, faculty, administrators, community, donors. And somebody that’s decisive, able to make a decision and have a clear vision of what the future is for Florida Atlantic University.”
    Sounds like excellent standards for board members, too.                                            

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