Speaking at a public forum today, in a twilight zone of denial, a meek and robotic FAU President Mary Jane Saunders
stonewalled all questions of morality from critics of her school's stadium naming rights deal with GEO Group, the global private prison operator. "It's a done deal," she told the room.
One after another recitation of the company's record of human rights abuses
was met with a well-programmed mantra: GEO CEO George Zoley's an alumnus; he made a pile of money; he's given a bunch to charity; and we can use some too. "It was given with love," Saunders said.
The crowd of more than 200 had gathered at noon in the school's recruiting room, in the bowels of the stadium, about half of them students, overwhelmingly opposed to the $6 million deal, the other half largely GEO employees, who knew on which side their bread was buttered.
Early questions from GEO supporters allowed Saunders to describe the uses the school plans to make of the cash -- "primarily for athletic scholarships" -- and to praise the deal as "a unique kind of gift, without strings." (Well, maybe one string: the school has to plaster the GEO Group's name on FAU's signature building.)
What followed was chiefly a barrage of criticism, peppered with outbursts like "PR ruse," "dirty money," etc. and disgusted walk-outs and one (enraged) ejection.
Q: Why did Saunders refer to the GEO Group's notorious history of abuses as "rumors?"
A: "These are responsible, highly regulated entities," she replied. And if there's anything to the "besmirching" of the company, it should be resolved "through the justice system."
Q: Won't the stadium's transformation into a "symbol of human rights violation" demean "the integrity of [an FAU] degree?"
A: "The light we see this action in" is as a testament to one graduate's [Zoley's] success.
Q: "Isn't this like putting a swastika on the stadium? Can you put a price on human rights?"
A: [Saunders totally tone-deaf and/or in a fugue state] "Wouldn't it be wonderful if...[PR-speak, corporate Kumbaya-ism, blather blather...]"
Asked if the school had any idea what a firestorm of criticism would follow the deal, Saunders said "We did not see it" because of "a level of respect and trust" for Zoley (a longtime FAU Trustee).
Asked if the process by which the deal went down could have been more transparent, Saunders replied, "We have well-established policies. They were followed."
So it proceeded, a hamster wheel of what did you know, when did you know it and how could you do it?, followed by Zoley's a local hero and it's not our job to tell him how to run his business.
A particularly galling, revealing moment occurred as one critic stood and offered Saunders a copy of an anti-Owlcatraz petition and a compendium of GEO's notorious resume. Saunders and moderator Professor Kevin Wagner
chose a bad time to share private words and a patronizing chuckle.
When the alloted hour had run down and the farce concluded, we asked Professor Kevin Lanning
, a Saunders advisor with a leading hand in the forum's organization, what had been accomplished. "I can't discuss this," he said, then literally put a hand over his mouth and scurried away. Maybe Lanning has more fortitude in Saunders's executive suite, and the courage to speak his mind there.
Pointing to the school's claimed ignorance of GEO's record, one student denounced its "failure of research" and asked about an exit strategy. Saunders replied: "There is no exit." Too bad for her.
Perhaps the worst consequence of Saunders's moral myopia is its instructional value.
Exiting the forum, on the broad sidewalk outside the stadium, one came upon a group of young male students, chuckleheaded jockos hawking t-shirts, $15 a pop. On the shirts' fronts, black letters on orange read "Owlcatraz." On their backs was inscribed "Prisoner number such-and-such" and similar faux data, making mockery of the GEO Group's grim business.
"We thought we'd capitalize on the occasion," one told us. "It's a way to begin a new tradition."
"Aren't you troubled by the university's association with a notorious human rights abuser?" we asked.
"Every large corporation's going to have a few black marks," he replied.
There's your cynical lesson well learned, President Saunders: Take the money and run.
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.