The Post-Catanese Wilderness

One of the nation's fastest-growing universities may be headed for hard times... or perhaps they're already here

Florida Atlantic University's 2002 honors convocation on April 9 convened late. At 3:30 p.m., the FAU Wind Ensemble was finishing its practice on stage, and only a sprinkling of seats in the University Theater were occupied. By the time the gowned and capped procession of senior faculty had settled into the two front rows, the band, now removed to the pit, had rounded off a medley of '50s pirate-movie music. The theater was only 20 percent full.

The convocation, an annual affair in honor of student and faculty achievement, had the added significance of being the first occasion in which FAU's president, Anthony Catanese, would appear at a university event since his surprise March 27 resignation announcement. After 12 years in the post, Catanese will leave FAU on July 1 to take the helm of the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne. His announcement created a media storm not only for its unexpectedness but for the apparent loss to FAU, where Catanese has been credited with doubling both student and faculty numbers (to 25,000 and 900 respectively), raising more than $220 million for new construction, increasing the number of degree programs by nearly 40 percent, increasing the number of campuses from three to seven, and creating the shopping plaza at University Commons.

Sports have also unquestionably grown under Catanese. The basketball (the Owls made a brief appearance in the NCAA basketball tournament in March) and baseball teams have recently enjoyed greater prominence than in the past. And perhaps the most ballyhooed part of his tenure was the 1999 hiring of the successful, veteran university (Miami, Louisville, and Oklahoma) coach Howard Schnellenberger to lead FAU's football team during its inaugural season.

Adios, amigo
Adios, amigo

Catanese's resignation threw FAU onto the front page and generated editorials across Florida. "To succeed Catanese, find another Catanese," the Palm Beach Post urged on March 29, while on the same day the Sun-Sentinel warned: "It's a time when FAU needs an aggressive and competent leader like Catanese.... Will the next FAU president live up to Catanese's standards?"

At the convocation, Catanese, resplendently robed in scarlet and black, sat center stage, burly and florid-faced with feet planted apart, the gathering's alpha male. Introduced as "the best president a university ever lost," he made scant reference to his departure, save that he was "leaving an experiment after 12 years." The main convocation award, for Distinguished Teacher, went to an assistant professor of physics, John Neumeier, whose brief acceptance speech offered a self-effacing round of praise for the also-rans and a candid admission: "I have been shocked. In the past year, over 60 percent of my class failed to earn a passing grade."

The statement rang in eerie counterpoint to the many reports of Catanese's overall success. A similar note was struck in September 2000, when the president announced a graduation rate of 46 percent, which was so low that FAU did not receive a penny of a proffered $3 million state reward. Indeed, during the '90s, students drifted away from campus more often and graduated less, according to the university's 2001-02 fact book.

Catanese's sparkling record also dims noticeably when it comes to books and some other fields. Though the legislature rather than the president wields the budget ax, it's clear Catanese has been less effective -- at least recently -- in protecting academic resources than he has been in achieving some nonclassroom-related goals. Moreover, a New Times survey of students on campus shows that few know of the president's resignation or even his name. And there's outrage over the ostentation of the $2 million home Catanese is leaving behind.

William Miller, director of libraries, is supportive of his president. But he is coping with a $525,000 cut in his budget this year that will return the purchase of books, electronic information, and other resources to pre-1995 levels. He laments the fact that Florida is among the worst states in the union in public-education funding and sees the present reduction in library resources as the most serious since the $1.3 million in cutbacks between 1989 and 1991.

"We also took a hit," concurs Anthony Tamburri, chairman of the Department of Languages and Linguistics, who supports Catanese as well. His department had to absorb a sudden 5 percent cutback this year. "We had to turn somersaults, as the fiscal year starts July 1, and by October, 80 percent of the budget is effectively spent."

Both Miller and Tamburri expect that their departments will be hit by at least another 5 percent in cuts during the coming year.

Fred Hoffman, professor of mathematics, has been at FAU since 1968 and, in contrast to some faculty, is refreshingly direct. "We have suffered from pressure for more productivity that is sought by the politicians. Universities aren't efficient. When you hunt for more productivity, it hurts and draws a university down. We have a bunch of legislators that behave like a bunch of petulant schoolboys."

He considers FAU's physical and educational growth as two separate issues, "and they can grow together or not. There are good students here but not as many as you would expect. The growth in the size of the student body has involved a lowering of admission standards, and that makes it harder for us to do what we want to do. When weak students have bad attitudes, we're in trouble."

Hoffman wishes that faculty had more time for the straightforward business of teaching and admits that there is not enough enthusiasm and sharing of ideas. He attributes the strangely empty atmosphere on campus in the middle of the day in part to the fact that FAU is largely a commuter school. "In 1968, I saw more students on campus than I do now." He concedes that "willy-nilly development will not get better students." (A recent survey of seniors showed that only one in five had a "sense of belonging" to the university community.)

Hoffman adds: "Catanese gave us more than 12 years, when he said he would give us 10. You can't demand more than that from anybody. He's now 59. If he stayed another two or three years, it would greatly lessen his ability to move on."

Collegewide cutbacks also mean that the university newspaper, University Press, must make do with an annual $120,000 that comes from the student government budget. Kelly Tyko, executive editor, says the paper is printed free by the Boca Raton News, "and we are the only agency that doesn't ask for more." Staff on the paper complain that finding news at all amid student apathy and nonparticipation is a constant challenge, although in September last year, Tyko was able to mine a lode of student discontent with a university ruling that made it compulsory for campus residents to pay for meal plans whether they used them or not. It gave Tyko her headline of the year: "MONEY HUNGRY: Breaking bread at FAU leaves some students bone dry." Whatever the paper's efforts, a campus survey last year put student satisfaction with the campus media at 29 percent.

On the other hand, apathy helped to propel Pablo Paez to the post of president of the student body in elections held three week ago. Student government at FAU controls an annual budget of $5.5 million; despite this, plus the perks, Paez was the only candidate. "I'm not going to speculate," Paez responds to questions about his solo candidacy or why voter turnout surged from 3 to 5 percent in past years to nearly 10 percent this time. (There were tales of votes being bought with slices of pizza.)

Student apathy at FAU is one thing. Student awareness, especially after Catanese's resignation reverberated on the South Florida media scale, tellingly remains another.

On convocation morning, among 40 students interviewed, only five knew Catanese's name, and four were aware that he had resigned. This left little room for opinions. However, two felt that he was a good president, while two challenged his financial motives for leaving; one of the latter commented: "As soon as he can get some more money, he's gone. So much for his commitment." Catanese's annual Florida Institute of Technology salary is unknown, but the last presidential salary disclosed there was $280,000, in contrast to Catanese's $190,000 at FAU.

Regardless of whether they knew about Catanese, seven students had opinions on the $2 million house that the university recently built for his use from private donations. Their comments were peppered with words like "ridiculous," "monster," "huge," and "Arabian mosque."

The convocation ceremony ended with a flourish of the Wind Ensemble. Then the audience, including a handful of students, headed for the tables of food. Outside, Manny Newsome, vice president of student affairs, concluded: 'I think Catanese was a good president. I've been 14 years in student affairs. I've seen students come and go, come and go. Have a nice day."

As FAU heads into its post-Catanese wilderness, much more seems at stake than finding a replacement who can similarly strong-arm millions for expansion and maintain the compliance of the local planning authorities. FAU must somehow save the quality and purpose of its education, as much from its own expansionary haste as from the bulldozers.

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