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.
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
Some faculty were horrified. In e-mails, they expressed outrage at the substance of the "Open Letter" and at the administration's attempt to put words in their mouths. One wrote:
I do not agree with the content of the letter and I am deeply disturbed by the process of generating the letter. This letter should not purport to portray the views of the entire campus when most of have been left out of this process.
To circulate such a letter -- or worse to send it to the President -- as if it represented the viewpoint of our community and without the due process of public debate in the Faculty Assembly is unacceptable and an outrage to [Wilkes Honor College].
One faculty member, though, stood up for the administration - Dr. Kevin Lanning. In emails, Lanning warned his colleagues that "any statement that is not very carefully worded may appear small-minded or self-indulgent," then counseled them to think of their cushy jobs.
"In the eyes of many of our colleagues in the university, we have an enviable life here, with small classes, good students, and an idyllic campus," he wrote, adding that "we give too little to the broader institution."
In a final, collaborationist flourish, Lanning shed tears for the administration's plight, painting an absurdly sympathetic portrait of its handling of the Deandre Poole affair, describing it as "[fighting] to honor its commitments to the sometimes-conflicting rights of faculty and students." As if a professor's right to introduce an exercise that students are free to object to and opt out of is somehow equivalent to a disgruntled student's "right" to allegedly threaten a professor.
(Lanning has a Zelig-like knack for popping up at key moments in FAU's current, shameful history. In late February, he interjected himself as an intermediary between President Saunders and protestors on the occasion of the first anti-Owlcatraz demonstration, an impromptu sit-in at Saunders's office. Soon after, he preempted an agreed-upon process and cherry-picked right-wing Professor Kevin Wagner to moderate Saunders's sham "Town Hall" on the naming deal.)
The dissident faculty met and generated a open letter of their own -- and signed their names to it. It read:
To the Florida Atlantic University Community:
The undersigned members of the MacArthur Campus faculty and staff wish to express our unflagging commitment to the principle that all members of the Florida Atlantic University community are free to exercise their rights of peaceable free speech and assembly. We are proud of our students for expressing their views and proud of Florida Atlantic University for fostering an environment in which peaceful protest and learned and respectful discussion are considered essential.
These principles have guided our learning community since its founding, and both we and our students hold them most dear.
Julie Earles, Christopher Ely, Jacqueline Fewkes, Michael Harrawood, Michelle Ivey, Dorotha Lemeh, Douglas McGetchin, Amy McLaughlin, Jon Moore, Wairimu Njambi, William O'Brien, Carmen Canete Quesada, Nicholas Quintyne, April Schimmel, Timothy Steignega, Christopher Strain, Miguel Vasquez, Laura Vernon, James Wetterer, and Daniel White
For reasons that are unclear, the dissidents' statement was not widely circulated. Still, its authors honored a key charge of the academy: Speak truth to power.
That concept -- honor -- is a constant thread in this story. The school's honor would have been stained by the GEO Group's name but for the actions of the StopOwlcatraz! coalition. It has been redeemed somewhat by the Honors College faculty's refusal to collude in the administration's indictment of the protestors.
It may be further redeemed tomorrow, when there is a scheduled protest against the school's enabling of the theocratic bullying of Dr. Poole.
A joint effort of students and faculty, the protest is set to begin at noon on the campus's Free Speech lawn, and will proceed to the school's administration building.
In a press release, organizers stated:
The students and faculty at FAU will be gathering to show our support for Dr. Poole on Tuesday April 9th from 12:00-1:30pm. FAU Administration does not speak for us! Condemning this professor and apologizing for the exercise demonstrate the administration is incapable of supporting its faculty and students and of championing the academic freedom and inquiry that should be the hallmark of the FAU community.
We fully expect to soon blog a post headlined, in part, "Mary Jane's Last Dance..." commenting on Saunders's resignation.
But it would be unfair to pin FAU's humiliation solely on her. A fish, as is famously said, rots from the head down. Responsibility for the school's problems ultimately lies with FAU's Board of Trustees. And they, in turn, are appointed by Gov. Rick Scott and Florida's GOP-dominated Senate. Until those miscreants -- the board and the pols -- are also given the boot, FAU's course will never run true.
For more information on tomorrow's "academic freedom" protest, contact Chandra Holst (786) 797-1619, Gonzalo Vizcardo (561) 302-4906 or firstname.lastname@example.org write to
Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes-fatal bite -- covers Palm Beach County. Got feedback or a tip? Contact Fire.Ant@BrowardPalmBeach.com.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!