Florida Atlantic University President Mary Jane Saunders admits she never saw coming the furor over GEO group's $6 million stadium-naming deal.
The same could be said about controversies involving the professor who questioned whether Sandy Hook happened as reported. Or the instructor who asked his students to step on a piece of paper with Jesus written on it. Or the protest that led to Saunders clipping one of the students who had surrounded her car.
Those stories, which once might have been just regional controversies, attracted widespread national attention partly due to the proliferation of social media, experts say. The negative publicity has frustrated Saunders and others who care about FAU's image.
"We clearly need to do a much better job of getting our story out," Saunders said Tuesday.
"We have so many good stories," she said, citing grants, faculty research and accreditation success as examples.
She thought the 12-year stadium deal with GEO Group of Boca Raton would be a good story. The company's president, George Zoley, is an alumnus and former chairman of the FAU Board of Trustees, and he had a track record of donating to the university and hiring FAU alumni.
"We accepted it with the best interest of students in mind," she said, noting much of the money would go to student scholarships.
But the deal led to a series of protests and complaints by students, faculty and civil rights groups, who complained GEO has a record of human rights violations and poor inmate conditions -- charges the company denies.
GEO said in a letter Monday the donation had "surprisingly evolved into an ongoing controversy and considerable distraction" for GEO and FAU. The company still plans to donate $500,000 to the university.
"We'll just go back to square one to see if there's a company or family that wants to help us," said Patrick Chun, FAU's athletic director. "It's not easy. If it were easy, Marlins Stadium wouldn't be named Marlins Stadium. FAU would have a name on its stadium."
The protests over the stadium deal became increasingly heated in recent weeks. On March 22, about 20 students on the Jupiter campus barricaded Saunders' vehicle, leading her to hurriedly drive away. Her side mirror then clipped and bruised a student.
Saunders said Tuesday the students were at fault, and she got a letter of apology from the campus.
"I think students got carried away," Saunders said, explaining most protesters have been respectful and she doubted any individual would have tried to block her from leaving. "But sometimes students in a group, they get over-excited," she said.
Students complained she didn't check on the safety of the injured student, but Saunders said, "I was threatened, and I was under direction [by police] to move my car out, and that's what I did."
Some say the university's failure to anticipate the GEO controversy is part of a pattern of administrative missteps.
"There have been a series of things that create the impression that we don't have our act together," said Tim Lenz, an FAU political science professor.
He and some other faculty members say FAU botched its response to the "step on Jesus" controversy, first supporting academic freedom but then reversing course when it received national notoriety.
The university failed to consult faculty before apologizing and pledging never to use the assignment again, they said. Also, FAU released little information while national blogs and media reports spread misinformation, they said.
"It was amazing that the university didn't contribute facts to the story," Lenz said.
Saunders said FAU tries to put out accurate information as it learns it, but often faces restrictions from federal privacy laws.
FAU also was blindsided by entries on a private blog by communications professor James Tracy, who questioned the accuracy of reports on the Sandy Hook massacre in Connecticut. Critics said he should be fired. FAU distanced itself from the statements, but didn't take any action.
Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based American Council on Education, says he has no doubt FAU will recover from these controversies. He doubts people will be talking about the stadium deal next year, and the other controversies may lead to discussions with faculty about what constitutes academic freedom.
"FAU is a first class institution. They've had a serious run of bad luck, but I think it will pass," Hartle said. "When institutions face public controversies, they learn from them and come out stronger. That's what's going to happen to Florida Atlantic University."
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