On Sept. 15, the University of West Florida Board of Trustees named Dr. Martha Saunders the university’s sixth president, effective Jan. 1, 2017. Saunders replaces UWF President Dr. Judith Bense, who retires at the end of the year. The offer of employment is contingent upon the completion of a successful background screen and subject to confirmation by the Florida Board of Governors.
In the official press release, Board of Trustee Chair Lewis Bear said, “We had four great candidates. It’s a shame that we can’t put them together as a team, but the University of West Florida is the winner in our selection.”
For Saunders, this will be her third time to lead a university. She served as Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater from 2005 to 2007 and President of the University of Southern Mississippi from 2007 to 2012. Saunders returned to UWF in 2013 and served as provost and executive vice president.
“I’m thrilled and honored,” Dr. Saunders told Inweekly. “It has been a long and kind of tedious process, but it was worth it. Every step of the way.”
The UWF presidential search had been on accelerated pace since August, a pace that isn’t uncommon in Florida. On Aug. 16, the search committee selected 19 applicants for interviews. The applicants had one-hour interviews on campus from Aug. 29-31.
On Sept. 6, the UWF Presidential Search Committee met and recommended four finalists to visit campus Sept. 12-14. The finalists were Frank Ashley, a senior vice president at The College Board; State Sen. Don Gaetz, former Senate president and Okaloosa County School Superintendent; Saunders; and Mike Sherman, University of Akron’s vice president of innovation and economic development.
Two weeks later, Sept. 12-14, the four finalists visited campus. On Sept. 15, the UWF Board of Trustees voted on the new president.
Saunders told Inweekly that the pace of the search may have seemed quick, but it has to be to protect the careers of the applicants.
“Well, you know, searches are tricky,” she said. “Certainly in the public sector, everything is out in the open and in Florida, with our very stringent Sunshine laws, there are lots of people out there that would have an interest, but that also have other jobs, and so it is not unusual for a search to kind of be silent for awhile and then move as quickly as possible so that applicants aren’t vulnerable.”
The finalist that drew the most criticism was Gaetz. The UWF Faculty Senate passed a resolution not supporting Sen. Gaetz for president and recommending the UWF Presidential Search Committee and Board of Trustees select one of three remaining finalists instead.
The Florida League of Women Voters also spoke out against Gaetz. League president Pamela Goodman appeared on “Pensacola Speaks” and outlined the League’s legal battle to get the State Legislature to comply with the Fair Districts amendment and Gaetz’s role in the district map that was eventually thrown out by the courts.
“I used to run a billion and a half dollar corporation, hired and fired people everyday,” said Goodman. “When you hire someone of this sort of magnitude to take on this kind of responsibility for business, academia, or any kind of large organization, we would hope that the board would do their due diligence and not overlook or conveniently forget these kinds of facts.”
She said her objection to Gaetz being named UWF president was not a personal vendetta between the state senator and her or the League of Women Voters of Florida.
“Truly, this is about 3.1 million people that voted on fair districts way back in 2010,” she said. “The fact that the legislature led in the Senate by Senator Don Gaetz basically flipped their finger at them, laughed at them and absolutely refused to follow their mandates.”
Goodman said, “I’m not sure that a person who did that in a high government position is someone we want leading one of our premier universities in the state of Florida.”
On Sept. 15, the UWF Presidential Search Committee met first. Chairman Mort O’Sullivan asked the board to forward all four finalists to the Board of Trustees for consideration.
Committee members Christopher Thrasher and Scott Keller objected to including Gaetz, citing concerns over his lack of higher education experience.
Pensacola City Council P.C. Wu defended Gaetz and pointed out how many politicians have become university presidents in the state of Florida, such as Frank Brogan, Betty Castor, T.K. Weatherall and John Trasher.
Committee member Steve Riggs spoke in favor of Gaetz, believing he would take UWF further over the next five years than any other finalist.
“This man will get this university ahead faster and quicker,” said Riggs of Gaetz.
Dr. Rick Harper, who has worked under both Gaetz and Saunders, discounted the criticisms coming from his fellow faculty members. He talked about how Gaetz had led very successful legislative programs through the legislature and built coalitions in Tallahassee. He said all four should be sent forward.
By a 12-7 vote, the search committee agreed to send all four finalists to the Board of Trustees.
The University of West Florida Board of Trustees convened 15 minutes after the search committee adjourned. After the public commented, the trustees each spoke about the finalists and the process.
Several talked about the “nastiness” of the process, referring to the negative criticism that Gaetz received. O’Sullivan was critical of the Faculty Senate voting on the UWF presidency before the four finalists visited the campus to meet the facility, staff and community.
Trustee Suzanne Lewis said that she was called yesterday by the consultant and asked to rank her choices. She didn’t say who was on the other side on the line, but Lewis said it caught her off guard and disturbed her.
Trustee Greg Britton said that he would vote for Dr. Saunders. Trustee Dave Cleveland described Saunders as the “ideal candidate.”
Chairman Lewis Bear was upset that there had been a widespread campaign to assassinate the character of a candidate—meaning, but not saying Don Gaetz.
“What are we teaching our children? Are we teaching them to be honest and forthright? Or are we teaching them to be sneaky and dishonest?” said Bear. “We’ve done an injustice to youth by spreading false rumors.”
In the end, the Board of Trustees selected Saunders by a 9-4 vote. The board then passed a resolution to make Saunders the unanimous choice.
After meeting, Inweekly learned that Gov. Rick Scott weighed in on the selection of the new University of West Florida president. On Wednesday, he called several trustees. The governor did not tell them or their employers that he was against Gaetz, only that he thought Saunders was an excellent candidate.
Some were told by others that the State Board of Governors would reject Gaetz if he was passed forward as the next president – which would have taken a two-thirds vote.
The pressure from Gov. Scott turned what was expected to be a close vote to a landslide for Saunders.
State Sen. Gaetz was magnanimous and refused to comment on the governor’s possible intervention.
He told The News Service of Florida, “I was honored to be nominated and privileged to even be considered. I think the trustees made an excellent selection in Dr. Saunders. I know her. I have worked with her. And I admire her, and I wish her and the university the very best.”