Defying the prevailing wisdom, provost Martha Saunders was selected Wednesday as the University of West Florida’s sixth president, unexpectedly beating out State Sen. Don Gaetz.
The university’s Board of Trustees voted 9-4 Wednesday to name Saunders the successor to outgoing president Judy Bense, who has helmed the university since 2008. Saunders was chosen over three other finalists who made the final cut: Gaetz, College Board executive Frank Ashley, and University of Akron vice president Mike Sherman.
Saunders said after the vote that she knew it would be close, but admitted she was surprised. “I knew that I had support, because people had been vocal about that,” Saunders said, “but I didn’t know how much.”
Thursday’s meeting was occasionally contentious: Board of trustees chairman Lewis Bear, Jr., who has donated thousands of dollars to Gaetz’s past political campaigns, at one point shouted at pro-Saunders speaker Mona Amodeo to sit down and threatened Amodeo with arrest after she continued to question Gaetz’s qualifications after exceeding her allotted time.
In the end, trustees Greg Britton, Dave Cleveland, Theodore Fox, Jake Hebert, Robert Jones, Suzanne Lewis, Jay Patel, Robert Sires, and Bentina Terry voted in favor of Saunders as the next president. Lewis Bear, Jr., Mort O’Sullivan, LuTimothy May, and Dick Baker voted for Gaetz. None of the board members voted for Ashley or Sherman.
Vote an uncommon defeat for Gaetz
Thursday’s vote came as a surprise to many, who viewed Gaetz as the clear favorite given his deep ties to more than half of the trustees. The Pulse reported last month that seven of the 13 trustees had previously contributed to the political campaigns of Gaetz and his son Matt.
Ultimately, those connections didn’t seem to matter, with five trustees choosing to back Saunders despite their previous campaign contributions to Gaetz. Multiple sources told The Pulse that Governor Rick Scott had quietly lobbied trustees to support Saunders in the days leading up to the vote.
Calling himself a “nontraditional candidate,” Gaetz had hoped to mirror former State Sen. John Thrasher, who was named president of Florida State University in 2014. Like Thrasher, Gaetz touted his political connections and knowledge of the legislative process as a strength; but several trustees questioned whether state lobbying restrictions could prevent Gaetz from using those connections. Under Florida law, former legislators aren’t allowed to lobby current ones for a two-year period after they leave office.
“As I read this, and I have conferred with counsel on this, I read this to be an absolute prohibition on approaching and lobbying the legislature,” said trustee Dave Cleveland. “It also complicates conversations and interactions with the Board of Governors. While some stakeholders may see this as a situation to be managed, others may look at it as skirting a very well-intentioned law.”
In a statement released after the vote, Gaetz called it “an honor to be nominated and a privilege even to be considered for the leadership of our university.”
“The Trustees made an excellent choice in Dr. Martha Saunders,” Gaetz said. “I have worked with her, admire her, and wish her and UWF the very best in the years ahead.”
Gaetz faced opposition from students, faculty
Faculty and student opposition to Gaetz largely centered on his academic qualifications, or what they considered his lack thereof compared to other finalists. In addition to not having worked in higher education before, Gaetz was also the only finalist who lacked a doctorate degree.
Saunders, on the other hand, was the clear choice of many faculty, university staff, and students. The Faculty Senate adopted a resolution last week opposing Gaetz’s candidacy, and several faculty members spoke in favor of Provost Saunders at Thursday’s meeting.
“The last two years have been the best for faculty morale in two decades,” said Professor Daniel Pace of the the university’s Department of Accounting & Finance. Alan Josephs, a UWF professor since 1969, called Saunders “the best, the most efficient, and the most inspiring” administrator in his nearly five decades at the school.
Students also protested against Gaetz’s candidacy and started a petition, which had drawn 336 signatures by Thursday. “His stance on research and the fact he doesn’t have a Ph.D. doesn’t sit well with us,” said Abigail Megginson, a sophomore studying journalism and political science and a co-author of the petition.
Saunders no stranger to university leadership
Saunders, a UWF faculty member and administrator from 1984 to 2002, returned to the University in 2013 and currently serves as provost and executive vice president. In that role, Saunders has oversight over all university divisions, and she’s essentially run the university’s day-to-day operations and managed its budget since Bense handed over those duties in 2014.
She previously served as chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater from 2005 to 2007 and president of the University of Southern Mississippi from 2007 to 2012.
“I’m thrilled and honored beyond belief,” Saunders said in a news release. “It has been a long and arduous process, but UWF is worth it.”
Speaking about her strong support from students and faculty, Saunders said, “it means that we’re going to get some things done and we can hit the ground running. I have the advantage of not having to go through the meet-and-greet and get to know everybody. I know them all, they know me.”
“The team is in place,” Saunders added, “and I think that’s going to be a real advantage.”
In addition to her leadership roles at Southern Mississippi and Wisconsin-Whitewater, she also served as provost and vice president for academic affairs at Columbus State University from 2002 to 2005.
Saunders began her career at UWF in 1984 as a professor in the Department of Communication Arts, where she then became coordinator of the Public Relations Program. She also served as director of the University Honors Program and associate dean of the College of Arts and Social Sciences from 1996 to 1999. In 2000, she was named dean of the UWF College of Arts and Sciences.
She received a bachelor’s degree in French from the University of Southern Mississippi, a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and a doctorate in communication theory and research from Florida State University.
Saunders could take over Jan. 1; salary uncertain
Despite Thursday’s vote, Saunders shouldn’t celebrate quite yet; her appointment must still be confirmed by the 17-member Board of Governors which oversees the state university system, though the confirmations are typically routine. That board is set to take up Saunders’ confirmation at its November 3 meeting.
Bense’s current contract runs through December 31, so should her appointment be confirmed in November, it’s likely Saunders would take over as UWF’s president on January 1. It’s not yet clear how much Saunders would be paid as UWF president; Bense is currently paid an annual salary of $310,750, but Saunders’ salary has not yet been negotiated.
As for Bense’s next step, the contract she negotiated last year provides for a yearlong paid sabbatical, after which she has the three-year option to return to UWF’s faculty, where she served for many years in the school’s anthropology department before becoming UWF’s president in 2008. Should she rejoin the faculty, Bense would be paid an annual salary of $279,675 and be entitled to the use of a full-time research assistant. Bense said last year that she plans to finish “Spanish Colonial Culture in Northwest Florida 1559-1719,” a book she was writing before taking over the university presidency.