First, FAU tried to name its stadium after a private prison operator, GEO Group. Then, FAU President Mary Jane Saunders struck a student with her car in a panic-stricken reaction to the sight of a mere handful of youngsters in the vicinity of her 2010 silver Lexus. Amid these events, the university surrendered to pressure from the Christian right over a communications class exercise, sending instructor Deandre Poole into hiding after receiving death threats.
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Faced with these challenges, the Saunders administration has lurched from one clumsy reaction to another, piling up the public relations damage. Unsteady is the hand at the wheel.
Now, previously unreported internal e-mails further reveal even more of the administration's ineptness -- even in dealings with its own faculty.
The Poole affair began two weeks ago, when the instructor's classroom exercise (involving stepping on the word "Jesus" written on a piece of paper) led to a propaganda assault from the Christian right. The school scuttled an investigation of Poole's report that he had received threats from a disgruntled student in the class. The school failed to afford Poole a fair hearing, which left his critics free to claim the worst.
Some faculty members felt that this was treason to the ideals of free inquiry and academic freedom -- and arguably, a violation of the university's collective bargaining agreement with faculty.
Meanwhile, further north, on the Jupiter campus of the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College -- FAU's academic showpiece -- on March 22, Saunders struck and (slightly) injured student Britni Hiatt, who with several others was there protesting the GEO Group naming rights deal.
Following the incident, the administration committed another embarrassing display of over-reaction.
Internal emails (provided to New Times by individuals who asked not to be identified, out of fear of retaliation), show that at 3:55 on the afternoon of March 25, the first Monday following the encounter between Saunders and Hiatt, Honors College Dean Jeffrey Buller emailed a request that "any faculty who are available" meet with him in five minutes "to discuss an important matter related to Friday's protest incident."
It's unclear how many or which faculty members attended on such short notice, but according to one attendee, Buller told the group that Saunders "had communicated a demand for an apology from the Honors College" by 5 p.m. The attendee wrote that Buller and others had been working on a statement, and that the statement was further amended. The attendee opined that "not a single person who was dragged to the meeting [was] happy with the content," including Buller.
The following morning at 9 a.m., a ridiculously groveling and implausibly broad "Open Letter to President Saunders" was posted by Buller on the home page of the Honors College website. Signed by "Members of the MacArthur Campus Community," the letter described the protestors as disrespectful and threatening, and denounced their behavior. On bended knee, the "Members" begged Saunders to return to the campus at some future date so that "we may once again earn your confidence in us." The letter read:
Dear President Saunders,
We at the MacArthur campus are distressed by accounts of campus events that took place last Friday. We acknowledge that a group of protesters, largely FAU students, treated you disrespectfully, caused you to feel threatened, and violated FAU's Student Code of Conduct. The faculty, staff, students, and administration based in Jupiter deplore such behavior and sincerely regret that members of our community treated you this way.
We uphold the principle that the FAU community is based on orderly debate and respectful disagreement. We encourage everyone in our community to express their thoughts in a safe, accepting environment as an important part of the learning experience. In return, we expect ourselves to extend that same respect to others. Last Friday, that expectation was not met, and we are united in denouncing the behavior of anyone who makes another person feel unsafe or unwelcome.
We sincerely believe that the behavior last Friday of that group of students is not a reflection of the behavior of the Jupiter student community as a whole. We do not condone any activity that violates the Student Code of Conduct or encourages others to do so. The events that occurred on Friday have tarnished the reputation of our campus, and we hope that we may once again earn your confidence in us.
We invite you to return to our campus on a date and at a time of your choosing when we may demonstrate to you a more representative sample of our values and enter into a constructive dialogue about the future.
Members of the MacArthur Campus Community