It’s been a headline-grabbing semester for Florida Atlantic University – but not for any of the reasons university officials hoped.
FAU President Mary Jane Saunders cheerfully rattled off the good news about her institution in an interview last week, from record levels of applications to a glittering reaccreditation report to significant strides by the university’s new medical school. She mentioned the professor who won an O. Henry Prize for short-story writing and the students who spent spring break building Habitat for Humanity houses.
But the succession of reporters who met with Saunders in her office Tuesday didn’t come to hear about FAU’s latest awards and accolades.
Instead, Saunders scheduled a series of 15-minute interviews that day to respond to the school’s third major public-relations challenge of 2013 – the withdrawal of a $6 million gift by private prison contractor GEO Group after a group of vocal opponents spent six weeks ripping plans to put GEO Group’s name on FAU’s football stadium.
The GEO Group announcement came while the university was dealing with uproar from a classroom activity in which an FAU instructor, in an exercise designed to teach intercultural communications students about the power of symbols, asked them to write “Jesus” on a piece of paper and then step on it.
The university initially defended the exercise when a local TV station reported on it. But after 48 hours of Internet-churned outrage, it did a U-turn and apologized for the activity and removed it from its curriculum.
Sandy Hook skeptic
Those controversies came after a tenured FAU professor found himself in the national spotlight for using his personal website to question whether the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre took place as described in official and media accounts.
FAU Associate Professor of Communications James Tracy, on a blog that is not affiliated with FAU, has referred to the “apparently contrived” appearance by the “alleged father” of one victim and the “untenable lone gunman narrative” that blames Adam Lanza for the 26 slayings in Newtown, Conn.
“While it sounds like an outrageous claim, one is left to inquire whether the Sandy Hook shooting ever took place — at least in the way law enforcement authorities and the nation’s news media have described,” Tracy wrote in a Dec. 24 blog post.
Later in the post, Tracy suggested “Obama administration complicity or direct oversight” of the incident to spark debate on gun control.
And in a January interview with a Canadian website, Tracy said: “There is the possibility that there were actors that were used. Now I know that that’s controversial, and that is not to say that a tragedy did not take place, but that it may have been choreographed or channeled in such a way to determine the impression, the interpretation that one took away from the event.”
CNN’s Anderson Cooper mentioned Tracy and his FAU connection on two separate shows in January. Saunders issued a statement that said Tracy’s “views and opinions are not shared by Florida Atlantic University.”
An FAU administrator recently sent Tracy a letter of reprimand, accusing him of not making it clear enough that his personal website is unrelated to his FAU work.
“Your actions continue to adversely affect the legitimate interests of the University and constitute misconduct,” says the letter from Heather Coltman, interim dean of arts and letters. Tracy plans to contest the disciplinary action through the faculty union, adding, “There are of course broader implications for free speech.”
The spate of unflattering stories presents a tough test for FAU, one image consultant said.
“Any one of these events could have had a negative effect on the institution. However, the fact that there were three of these events in a span of three months poses some significant challenges for FAU’s image,” said Cindy Ann Peterson, a Virginia-based consultant who’s on the executive board of the Association of Image Consultants International.
“That said, these challenges are not insurmountable and can be managed if the right corrective action is taken in a timely fashion.”
How a university responds to controversy is often more important than the controversy itself, said Rae Goldsmith of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, which provides advice and training on fundaising for colleges and universities.
“It typically does not have a long-term impact on fundraising or student-recruiting. If there is an impact, it’s usually short-term, as students and donors take a wait-and-see attitude to see how the institution responds,” Goldsmith said.
One of FAU’s responses to the stadium naming controversy was to hold a meeting between university officials and opponents of the deal on March 1. It produced heated talk, but little movement toward common ground.
Long term effects
Attorney Gary Lesser, a member of the fundraising FAU Foundation board, said administrators miscalculated.
Lesser called Saunders “a very lovely and nice person and she really believed that you could sit down and have a conversation and work it out.” But opponents, Lesser said, “didn’t want to work it out. They had a goal, which was to get rid of the name of the stadium.”
Lesser predicted the stadium flap will not have a long-term effect on FAU’s reputation or ability to attract donations. But he said it should be a lesson that the school’s growth and higher profile bring bigger image problems.
“What happened with FAU is, they’ve arrived. They’ve become a big-time university now, with a medical school and a partnership with Scripps. They’re not a commuter school anymore,” Lesser said. Twenty years ago, Lesser said, “they didn’t have crises occur, or crises that were amplified in the media.”
The “Jesus” exercise at FAU has been amplified by traditional and non-traditional media alike and has brought the school criticism from multiple sides. The school’s sudden decision to drop the activity from its curriculum was criticized by the FAU’s faculty union and others as a blow to academic freedom.
“When the university administration unilaterally claims that such an assignment will not be taught again without the consultation of the faculty member involved as well as the faculty at large, they shred the principles of academic freedom that legitimate the existence of the university and guide genuine scholarly inquiry,” said a statement from the union.
At the same time, the school’s apology was derided as “weak and tepid” on Thursday by the Rev. Mark Boykin, who led a march of more than 150 demonstrators from his nearby Church of All Nations to FAU’s main gate for a “Take A Stand For Jesus” rally.
Boykin called for Saunders to be removed as president.
‘Hit and run episode’
“From her out-of-control faculty to the controversies surrounding the campus to the university’s handling of her hit-and-run episode on the Jupiter campus, her credibility has been eroded,” Boykin said.
The “hit-and-run episode” occurred March 22 — the same day FAU reversed itself and abandoned the “Jesus” exercise.
Saunders attended a meeting at FAU’s Jupiter campus and about 20 students protesting GEO Group’s record in managing prisons surrounded her car as she prepared to leave. One student suffered a bruise after she was brushed by Saunders’ right-front mirror when the president pulled out of the parking lot.
Saunders said she didn’t realize her car had touched a student.
FAU Board of Trustees Chairman Anthony Barbar blamed the incident on students failing to obey police commands to get away from Saunders’ car.
Barbar acknowledged it has been an “unusual” few months for the 30,500-student school, but he said he doesn’t think FAU’s reputation will suffer for long.
“I think that there are so many really good things happening at FAU that to be overwhelmed and overtaken by a few negative themes in the scheme of the entire institution would be sad. And I don’t think it will be,” Barbar said.
Saunders said the series of controversies don’t give a complete picture of FAU.
“Everybody really is craving the good stories as well as the controversial ones to be covered,” Saunders said. “I think if I put a thing on my desk it would say ‘This too shall pass,’ because people do understand that universities go through controversial times.”
Saunders said FAU needs to do a better job of telling its story, a task more difficult when negative news and views can spread quickly on the Internet.
“We can always do a better job on public relations. I do think, however, that going forward, that all universities, especially public ones, are going to struggle with the interface of social media with legitimate journalism,” Saunders said. “As we go forward, really thinking about how we’re all going to work with that is going to be an issue.”
Unwanted FAU headlines
• January: University distances itself from professor whose personal blog questioned “whether the Sandy Hook shooting ever took place.”
• February: Private prison contractor GEO Group’s $6 million stadium naming-rights deal ignites six-week controversy; GEO Group withdraws gift April 1.
• March: FAU defends intercultural communications class lesson asking students to write “Jesus” on paper and step on it; two days later, school apologizes for exercise and removes it from curriculum.