In a classic example of bolstering the bunker instead of looking in the mirror, FAU's Board of Trustees yesterday blasted those who criticized and publicized the school's recent high-profile public blunders.
Rather than question the wisdom of 1) branding the school's signature building with the name of a notorious human rights abuser and 2) caving in to Christian Right propaganda instead of defending academic freedom, the trustees, meeting on the school's Boca Raton campus, blamed their troubles on "well-funded national activists," "professional protestors," and social and news media, and called for more aggressive PR.
FAU President Mary Jane Saunders led off the comments during the "community engagement" portion of the meeting. For the umpteenth time she described the GEO Group's $6 million purchase of FAU stadium naming rights as "a relationship gift" and said she was "disappointed" the deal was canceled.
Of the outcry that followed news of the deal, Saunders said the school had not been "prepared to be dragged into a national dialogue" about private prisons and immigration, blaming the dispute on "well-funded national activists."
Saunders repeated previous talking points concerning her March 22 encounter on the school's Jupiter campus with students protesting the GEO deal, in which Saunders sideswiped a student with her 2010 silver Lexus.
In Saunders's version of events, students "with walkie-talkies" "chased her to her car," and "surrounded" her, leaving her "physically threatened" and "in fear for my safety." Student witnesses' statements and photo evidence are, at best, equivocal, and at worst, show Saunders recklessly fleeing the scene.
Saunders played the terrorism card, citing Monday's street bombings in Boston, and spoke of the "escalation of violence on campus" and the school's "responsibility to protect from the threat of violence."
Saunders said descriptions of the GEO deal and protests and the events surrounding Dr. Deandre Poole's communications class exercise -- in which students were asked (though not required) to step on pieces of paper with the word "Jesus" written on them -- had been misrepresented by social media, and those misrepresentations picked up and amplified by "legitimate media."
Saunders described public criticism of Poole's exercise as "aggressive, passionate and highly threatening," and said she was "extremely pleased we could defuse this incident...no violence occurred."
(Unmentioned was that matters were "defused" by short-circuiting an investigation of Dr. Poole's claim that a student threatened him over the exercise, and by deep-sixing the class and the exercise. Poole is on administrative leave, in hiding out of concern for his safety -- that, too, unmentioned.)
Saunders concluded by saying the school needs to be "more thoughtful on academic freedom and the First Amendment." It was left to Trustee Jeffrey Feingold, a dentist and GOP activist, to pick up on that thread.
In a rant that was aggressive, passionate and highly threatening to the First Amendment and the spirit of free inquiry, he ran with it.
"Free speech is fine," Feingold said heatedly, but what occurred on the Jupiter campus was "a life-threatening situation." Referring to the communications class exercise, he called on FAU administration to be aware of "the potential for danger by riling up people," and said the school needs to "re-think" what academic activity is "useful" and what is not. Returning to the GEO deal protests, he said there is a place for protest but, "I don't want to hear it anymore...What if there was a gun?"
Trustee Abdol Moabery, an aircraft magnate and GOP fundraiser, defended Saunders's role in the Jupiter protest collision. Expanding on Saunders's account, Moabery said Saunders was "in the right-of-way" and the "student stepped out in front of the car." Again, on the latter point, witness statements and photos of the scene indicate otherwise.)
Other trustees piled on, questioning the limits of academic freedom ("Like tenure," one said, "it is not blanket protection for a limitless range of bad behavior.") and slamming the "thirty or so professional protestors" who exposed the GEO deal.
Several trustees suggested the school could avoid future problems through a greater social media presence and more proactive responses to criticism. One trustee proposed Saunders start Tweeting.
Sitting quietly in the audience listening to the trustees were John and Faith Hiatt, parents of Britni Hiatt, the student struck by Saunders's car. They had written an open letter to the FAU community Monday, seeking an apology from Saunders.&
"We're extremely disappointed," Mr. Hiatt told New Times after the meeting. "We've seen the good-old-boys in action, out to protect their own."
Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes-fatal sting -- covers Palm Beach County. Got feedback or a tip? Contact Fire.Ant@BrowardPalmBeach.com.
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