Provost Named UWF President Amid Claim Of ‘Interference’

September 16, 2016

University of West Florida trustees on Thursday elevated a provost to the school’s presidency, rejecting a state senator while the top trustee cited “interference” from Tallahassee in the decision.

Culminating a six-month search process, which resulted in 83 applicants to replace retiring President Judy Bense, the university’s Board of Trustees voted 9-4 to make Provost and Vice President Martha Saunders the new president on Jan. 1. Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who served as Senate president from 2012 to 2014, received the other votes.

Saunders has deep academic ties to the Pensacola-based university, where she served as a faculty member and administrator between 1984 and 2002 before leaving to take administrative jobs at out-of-state schools, including the presidency of the University of Southern Mississippi. She returned to the University of West Florida as provost in 2013.

She described the board’s decision as a “fairy tale” ending to her academic journey, saying she was surprised by the vote.

“I’m thrilled and honored beyond belief,” Saunders said. “It has been a long and arduous process, but UWF is worth it.”

Gaetz had the fewest amount of higher-education credentials among the final four candidates. But he had the deepest ties to Tallahassee, where state government plays a large role in setting policy for the university as well as providing the bulk of its funding.

But political machinations in Tallahassee may have played a role in Gaetz coming up short.

Lewis Bear, chairman of the trustees, decried “character assassination” aimed at Gaetz, as critics tried to tie the senator to an ongoing investigation of a hospice company that Gaetz helped found but later sold his interest in. Bear said Gaetz had no part in the inquiry.

“I think we have spread bad rumors about somebody who has done a great job for our state,” Bear said.

Bear also said he was disturbed by “government” interference in the process.

“A number of our trustees have had phone calls from Tallahassee, from high office, from governing boards,” Bear said. “There was never any undue pressure, but there were promises that if you vote for a certain candidate we will do certain things to enhance the University of West Florida.”

Asked to clarify his remarks after the meeting, Bear said his information was “third hand” from trustees, whom he declined to name, nor would he name any Tallahassee officials who allegedly made the calls.

But Bear said he believed the calls hurt Gaetz’s candidacy.

“The comments that were made were insinuations that if the university does not select a person with direct relationships with legislators that the university shouldn’t worry about that because there are people in Tallahassee who will make sure if we select a different candidate, the university would still be taken care of,” Bear said.

Gaetz, who is leaving the Senate in November because of term limits, declined to react to Bear’s comments.

“I was honored to be nominated and privileged to even be considered,” Gaetz said. “I think the trustees made an excellent selection in Dr. Saunders. I know her. I have worked with her. And I admire her, and I wish her and the university the very best.”

Brittany Davis, communications director for the state university system, said neither Chancellor Marshall Criser III nor any members of the system’s Board of Governors, which oversees the 12 state universities, contacted UWF trustees in favor or opposition to a presidential candidate.

Jackie Schutz, communications director for Gov. Rick Scott, said the governor “frequently talks with trustees on key issues at our universities.”

“He is thankful for their service to the state and the many hours they volunteer to make our higher education system more affordable and accountable,” Schutz said. “Gov. Scott appreciates all of the candidates who put their names forward to serve as president of UWF and looks forward to working with president-elect Martha Saunders as she meets with the Board of Governors to outline her vision for UWF’s future.”

Scott has played an active role in the boards of trustees that run each university.

Earlier this year, he rejected two University of West Florida trustees who sought reappointment to the board. His two replacement appointees, as well as another trustee who was reappointed in March, were among the nine trustees voting for Saunders.

Three of the four trustees, including Bear, who voted for Gaetz, had also either been appointed or reappointed by Scott.

Also this year, Scott rejected the reappointment of Allan Bense, a former House speaker, as a trustee for Florida State University, apparently miffed by Bense’s earlier support for a tuition increase.

Mort O’Sullivan, a University of West Florida trustee who chaired the search committee that recommended the four final candidates and who also supported Gaetz, said he had not received calls from anyone in Tallahassee regarding his vote.

“We conducted an open, fair, honest process, that was my charge,” O’Sullivan said about the search committee. “I know in my heart we accomplished that.”

Saunders had strong support from the university faculty. The faculty Senate passed a resolution Friday in opposition to Gaetz, with a survey showing a majority preferred Saunders. Ted Fox, a trustee and a biology professor who leads the Senate, was among the nine supporters of Saunders.

Jake Hebert, another trustee who is president of the Student Government Association, also voted for Saunders.

“I think it went the way it should have,” Hebert said, saying Saunders was “the right one for the future of the university even in Tallahassee.”

Two other presidential candidates, Frank Ashley, a vice president with The College Board, and William M. “Mike” Sherman, a provost at The University of Akron, drew praise from the trustees but no votes in the final decision.

O’Sullivan was designated by the board to negotiate the details of Saunders’ three-year contract. She will also undergo a more extensive background check before she assumes the presidency in January. Saunders, who will be the university’s sixth president, also faces a confirmation vote from the state Board of Governors.

by Lloyd Dunkelberger, The News Service of Florida


10 Responses to “Provost Named UWF President Amid Claim Of ‘Interference’”

  1. mike on September 20th, 2016 4:28 pm

    the wise choice, i am surprised. :)

  2. Charlie Dillard on September 17th, 2016 12:11 pm

    Congratulations Provost Dr. Martha Saunders!
    Sen Don Gatez I am sure you can fine work, but not at UWF.
    Sen. Gatez would have not been a smart move for UWF.
    Northwest Florida needs new people, not the the same ones over and over….to much government! Move on UWF.

  3. UWFforever on September 16th, 2016 11:35 am

    Sounds like Bear is spinning the story because his pal was selected. If there WAS “government interference,” it was actually telling some trustees that “selecting an unqualified candidate would hurt UWF.” The selectee will make a great president!

  4. Bob C. on September 16th, 2016 11:27 am

    MEGA–Bucks Baron, Lewis Bear is quoted as saying,
    “I think we have spread bad rumors about somebody who has done a great job for our state,” Bear said.

    Use of word ‘we’ indicates Mr Influencer is including himself in this statement.

    It must really sting the influencers when their wants and demands are over ruled by professionalism, true service to a great cause and honestly doing what is right.

    Congratulations Provost Dr. Saunders…..YOU will Serve UWF in a most excellent manner.

  5. Bill on September 16th, 2016 11:08 am

    Bear also said he was disturbed by “government” interference in the process.

    ….but Bear’s interferences are acceptable. He’s just mad because he owed Gaetz and he wasn’t able to deliver.

  6. anne on September 16th, 2016 9:48 am

    Proof that serving well still works in the USA. Congratulations to Ms Saunders!

  7. gatorbait on September 16th, 2016 8:46 am

    Bear also said he was disturbed by “government” interference in the process.
    “A number of our trustees have had phone calls from Tallahassee, from high office, from governing boards,” Bear said. “There was never any undue pressure, but there were promises that if you vote for a certain candidate we will do certain things to enhance the University of West Florida.”

    Gov. Tricky Rick Scott at it again.

  8. Sue on September 16th, 2016 7:21 am

    Congratulations Ms. Saunders. Well deserved!

  9. jeeperman on September 16th, 2016 7:00 am

    Booze Baron Lewis Bear needs to re-think his allegations.

  10. area resident on September 16th, 2016 5:04 am

    Sounds like everything else these days…too much government!

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