by Jeremy Morrison
The mood of the room lifted as it became clear that Martha Saunders was about to become the University of West Florida’s next president. It erupted in restrained joy at the realization that a bullet had been dodged, that the board of trustees was about to make what one attendee had described as “an easy choice.”
But not everyone seemed to enjoy this collective sigh of relief. Their pick for the university’s new president — retiring state senator Don Gaetz — had just received a thorough public routing and been handed a humbling 9-4 defeating vote by the trustees.
Lewis Bear, chairman of the trustees, seemed particularly irked. Not about the selection of Saunders — everyone agreed UWF’s current provost was a shoe-in for the position — but rather about the path taken to such a destination. Specifically, the chairman was riled by the reception Gaetz received and charged that the Northwest Florida legislator had been the target of a “character assassination.”
“It’s been a widespread campaign,” Bear said. “It’s a campaign that’s been based on innuendo, and a campaign that’s been based on less than fact.”
The chairman was referring to the critiques and concerns raised by the community in regards to Gaetz. He was referring to the recent resolution passed by the UWF Faculty Senate in opposition to the senator. And the likeminded petition circulated by students. And the questions being asked about political and personal connections between Gaetz and members of the board of trustees and presidential search committee. And, apparently, the fact that Gov. Rick Scott had spent the previous evening lobbying trustees to vote for Saunders.
“There’s just a lot of things that bother me,” the chairman said.
Bear was referring to what Mort O’Sullivan, chair of the presidential search committee, had just described as “the nastiness.”
“My question, I guess, that I keep asking myself, is what are we teaching our children?” Bear posed. “Are we teaching them to be honest and forthright, or are we teaching them to be sneaky?”
The question was essentially a mirror version of a sentiment expressed by a student earlier in the public forum period of the meeting.
“As Argonauts we act with integrity, we do not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do,” began UWF student Maura Little, going on to paint Gaetz as unfit for the presidency.
Little was far from alone in her scathing assessment of the senator. The auditorium of UWF’s Center for Fine and Performing Arts was packed with people wearing “Martha for President” stickers and perched on the edge of their seats anxious about what course the university may take in the future.
People expressed reservations about Gaetz’s lack of higher education experience or a Ph.D. They were put off by his philosophical stances on issues ranging from guns on campus to what type of academic research should be pursued. And they questioned the wisdom of going with a product of the state’s political ecosystem as opposed to one bred out of academia.
Ellen Roston, a representative of the local chapter of the League of Women Voters, read a letter from the organization’s state president that delved into Gaetz’s involvement in the state’s legislatively-drawn political districts that were found to violate the constitution due to the involvement of political operatives in the process that resulted in districts that favored incumbents and Republicans and a damning opinion from the Florida Supreme Court.
“How can you possibly consider appointing as president of your university this man who thumbed his nose at the constitution and lied about it publicly?” Roston read the letter into record. “Is this the sort of role model you want for students, faculty, families and the community?”
But there were also defenders of the senator. Dr. Llamar White, who knew Gaetz from their time together in the Okaloosa County school system, where the senator served as superintendent, wrote off the League’s concerns, citing Senate President Andy Gardiner’s description of the letter as the “ill-informed ramblings of a political rival” and Gaetz’s assessment of the League itself as “partisan plaintiffs masquerading as voting rights groups.”
“You simply must select Don Gaetz as the next president,” White said. “I know firsthand what he can do.”
And while much time was devoted to sounding the alarm bells about Gaetz, the public also sung the praises of Saunders. They described her as the obvious choice and urged the trustees to “listen to their better angels” and “please give us a leader that we respect and believe in.”
Allen Josephs, on faculty at UWF since 1969, said he had known every administrator to work at the university through the years and described Saunders as “the best, the most efficient and the most inspiring.”
“She’s not so much a provost seeking promotion as she is a university president seeking to return to her natural position as leader,” Josephs said.
Andrew Romer, an executive specialist at UWF, commented on what he described as Saunders’ professional, as well as personal, “grace.”
“Martha’s the kind of leader that doesn’t need to order us to do anything, she doesn’t need to threaten or pressure us,” Romer said. “She’s a leader that when I get up in the morning, I want to fight to make UWF a better place for our students, our community, our faculty and staff.”
Daniel Pace, a professor at UWF for the past 20 years, said faculty morale had improved during Saunders time as provost and said it would be a misstep not to place her in the president’s office.
“Frankly, I think that if Dr. Saunders is not selected we are losing our best candidate and we are also losing that pool of knowledge that will help us secure funding in the future.”
Members of both the board of trustees, as well as the presidential search committee expressed similar sentiments in regards to Saunders. They noted her “proven leadership experience” and how the university had “a general that’s in charge already” that would be “ready to hit the ground running at top speed on January first.”
“With Dr. Saunders we have a candidate that has already begun a process, and I really think we should allow her to continue,” said Ted Fox, who sits on the board of trustees and also serves as president of the faculty senate.
Even trustees who would go on to vote for Gaetz had nothing but roses for Saunders, paying recognition to her “great accomplishments” as provost.
“It is my desire that somehow this university is able to combine the talents of Martha Saunders and Don Gaetz,” said O’Sullivan, describing a scenario in which the senator was hired as president and Saunders continued as provost.
Gaetz’s reception by trustees and search committee members was mixed. He was described alternately as “somebody who has done a great job for our state” and as “a reputational risk” for the university.
The argument for his selection rested on the theory that the senator, armed with connections cultivated during his years in Tallahassee, would be better equipped to navigate the state’s new performance-based funding system for public universities and potentially chart UWF’s course toward Emerging Preeminent status.
“Our world has changed from the outside,” said O’Sullivan, referencing the recent changes at the state level. “It is a hard, mean world that the university system is now living in.”
But others questioned the assertion that Gaetz was best suited for such a task. And they wondered how the retiring senator could work his Tallahassee connections when state law forbids former legislators from lobbying lawmakers for a period of two years. Though such concerns had previously been waived off as “a situation that can be managed,” it was suggested that such could conversely be interpreted as “working around or skirting a very well intentioned law.”
Several members of the search committee, in fact, had balked at the notion of even forwarding Gaetz to the trustees for consideration. They contended he should be tossed from the pool.
Dr. Scott Keller, a professor of logistics and marketing at UWF, cited the senator’s lack of executive level experience in education. Graduate student Christopher Thrasher said he had concerns about Gaetz’s “temperament” and had heard he was “volatile” and prone to “blow up at his staff.”
“I think we have three other candidates that are excellent,” said search committee member Dr. Steven Kass, citing Saunders and the other two presidential finalists, Mike Sherman and Frank Ashley. “I’d be happy with any of those three to be honest.”
And while Gaetz was forwarded to the trustees along with the other three candidates — and received notably kinder treatment there — it became evident rather quickly that the senator would not be getting the needed votes to secure the president’s position.
As trustees ticked off their votes, the auditorium exhaled with applause and cheers at the seventh, and defining, vote. The UWF community had been granted their request. Saunders had prevailed as the university’s new president.