Saunders: UWF on the Rebound
In October 2014, University of West Florida President Dr. Judy Bense appointed Martha Saunders the Provost and Executive Vice President of the University of West Florida.
Dr. Saunders was placed over both academics and operations. All vice presidents, as well as the associate vice president for Human Resources and General Counsel, began to report directly to her. She definitely had the background to handle the challenge. Saunders served as the president of the University of Southern Mississippi from 2007-2012. She was the chancellor for the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater from 2005-2007, after serving as provost and vice president for Academic Affairs at Columbus State University from 2002-2005.
She took charge of a university that had hit a rough patch last year. The faculty senate passed a “No Confidence” in Dr. Bense and UWF earned the lowest grade of all the state universities under the new Performance Based Funding for Florida’s Universities rating system, which cost the school one percent of its funding.
To her credit, Dr. Bense realized that changes needed to take place at the administrative level. She asked Saunders, who began her career at UWF in 1984 as a professor in the Department of Communication Arts, to add operations to her academic duties at the university.
When Inweekly caught up with Saunders, she had just returned from the January meeting of the State University System of Florida’s Board of Governors. Accompanied by UWF’s senior leadership, she had to present the university’s improvement plan to the board.
When the Board of Governors came out last year with its performance metrics, UWF did not fare well, scoring 21 out of a possible 50 points. Only two other schools scored below the threshold. The board of governors held some of the university’s budget money and required the administration to prepare an improvement plan and give two reports, one in December 2014 and the second in May 2015.
“They’ve approved the improvement plans and they’ve given us half our money back,” Saunders said. “This is probably the only do-over any universities will ever get with this. The good news, for us, first of all, we’ve already met almost every condition of the improvement plan. The second one is our metric scores, although they haven’t been officially reported, have bounced way up.”
The performance metrics included academic progress, student retention, graduation rate, average cost to obtain a degree and the percentage of graduates who are employed in the state of Florida at a certain wage.
“All our improvement scores went dramatically up,” she said. “In fact, we were kind of the buzz around the meeting,”
Supply Chain Logistics
At the Greater Pensacola Chamber’s 2015 Legislative Luncheon, Dr. Saunders asked lawmakers to help her school launch a Supply Chain Logistics program, a field that has high demand.
The Florida Chamber of Commerce reported that 23,000 new trade and logistics jobs were created in Florida between 2010-12. Florida Chamber CEO Mark Wilson told the Florida Cabinet, “The state has the potential to create 150,000 new trade and logistics-related jobs, which will pay 30 percent more than the statewide average, through the next five years.”
“We believe Logistics Management will be a winner for students and businesses,” Saunders told the legislative delegation.
Inweekly asked her to elaborate more on the potential of the program.
“It really is a high-need area and is going to become even more of a high-need area, as manufacturing becomes more scattered all over the globe,” Saunders said. “Somebody’s got to figure out how do you get the product from one place to another. Once the product gets here, if it’s manufactured abroad, then how do you get it off the boat, into a truck, into a warehouse, without compromising its quality. It’s a really complicated field, for which there’s a lot of room for smart people.”
UWF is asking the legislature for recurring funds. She said. “We have money now to get things started, and recurring funding for those programs would be very helpful.”
Logistics started as a specialization in the business school. The UWF Board of Trustees approved to accelerate it to a stand-alone major.
“We have a really bright faculty member, Scott Keller, who has an endowed professorship in the College of Business,” she said. “He has sort of single-handedly built that program.”
Keller has taken students to national logistics competitions. “For the last eight years, we have been in the top four, and frequently the top winner,” Saunders said. “This is against all schools, everywhere. University of Michigan, you know, you name it. Our teams are competing very, very well. That was just one faculty member and a few students. Imagine what we’ll do when we really get it going.”
Another program that Dr. Saunders helped launch was the Center for Cybersecurity, which is hiring a director this month.
“Every business in the world is going to have to really have a cyber specialist protecting its data. It’s just the world we’re in right now,” she said. “Our folks have gone to Washington and have gotten some access to the Homeland Security people and the Department of Defense people. They are just starving for us to feed them and to do the research in their areas.”
Saunders said she believes that UWF can develop a cybersecurity niche and help train the trainers. She told Inweekly, “Where can we fit is helping people be able to teach cybersecurity, either in their companies or in the military, in particular.”
She wasn’t sure how long the cybersecurity niche will be in demand and has planned accordingly. She said, “The day could come when it’s not needed anymore. There will be the next thing. The faculty we’ve hired are all on contract.”
Saunders explained that this type of adaptability is important as the administration looks at trends in higher education. “We’ll be doing more things like that,” she said. “We’ll be more responsive to the need, and then when the need is no longer there, we’ll quit doing it.”
The University of West Florida will play its first football game in the fall of 2016. Head Coach Pete Shinnick, whose career record is 103-46, was hired a year ago and is currently recruiting his first team of Argonauts. The team’s home games will be played in the Vince Whibbs, Sr. Community Maritime Park in downtown Pensacola.
“We’re well on our way to the football team,” Saunders said. “I was a part of a recent recruitment weekend with Coach Shinnick. He knows how to start a program, and I think he’s going to recruit some good players. That’s going to happen.”
In March, UWF will break ground on its athletics building adjacent to the field house.
“If you go out to the campus now, you’ll see little ribbons tied around trees. Those are the trees that will stay,” she said. “They’re already starting the site work for the building. It will be adjacent to the field house, so we’ll really have an athletic village when the athletic building is there. Then a competition field will be completed that will, later, one day, have a stadium around it.”
She said she does believe that athletics will add to campus life. “There has been a big change in campus from when I left the university over 10 years ago,” Saunders said, pointing out that UWF has 2200 beds on campus. “When you think of student life, you always look at the proportion of your students who are living on campus, because they’re the ones that really infuse the campus.”
She added with a smile, “I was gone for 10 years, and it’s a very different place. The sidewalks are crowded. The cafeteria is crowded. There’s students throwing frisbees around, and doing things that you see on any traditional campus. That’s continuing to be cultivated.”