Here is the message from Florida Atlantic University about the $6 million football stadium deal with prison company GEO Group: We’re keeping the money. If you don’t like it, tough.
At the Friday meeting FAU President Mary Jane Saunders held with students, the script was obvious from the start. The meeting was held in a room at the stadium. Dr. Saunders didn’t have a microphone, so some in the crowd of about 200 couldn’t hear her. She also was mostly beyond the range of media microphones. Which might have mattered if Dr. Saunders actually had answered any of the students’ questions.
Instead, surrounded by eight other FAU administrators and Board Chairman Anthony Barbar — but no one from GEO — Dr. Saunders responded to almost every question with talking points. The same talking points. Some students were rude. Some grandstanded, with one comparing the gift to “putting a swastika” on the stadium. College students. Shocking. Others, though, asked succinct, pointed questions:
Had Dr. Saunders known about the contracts GEO lost in Mississippi and Australia, and why the company lost them? Since Dr. Saunders praises the diversity of FAU’s student body, what about the charges that GEO has mistreated Hispanic immigration detainees? What about GEO’s comments that immigration reform that grants legal status to detainees could be bad for business? Does the association with GEO “tarnish” all degrees FAU awards? (That question drew long, loud applause from students.) Was Dr. Saunders aware of the many abuse cases GEO has settled? Why was there no public discussion before accepting the $6 million? Because FAU touts its social work program, how does FAU reconcile the 12-year association with a company that must deal with accusations of human-rights violations?
Dr. Saunders didn’t even try to present a defense. As if on a recording loop, she said: GEO’s president has two degrees from FAU; GEO is a local company; GEO hires FAU graduates; GEO has donated to FAU for years; the money came from the GEO Group Foundation to the FAU Foundation. She has heard “rumors” about GEO. She deviated from the talking points only when a student asked if FAU would consider returning the money. Said Dr. Saunders: “This is a done deal.”
No surprise there. FAU needs that $6 million. FAU and GEO have described the donation as “philanthropic,” but Dr. Saunders acknowledged that the amount is the minimum needed to make bond payments on the stadium. She also acknowledged that FAU had received no comparable offers in its effort to sell naming rights to what critics now call “Owlcatraz.”
After one hour, with questioners waiting, the meeting ended. Mr. Barbar quickly took Dr. Saunders’ elbow and whisked her out of the room, away from reporters. Clearly, FAU’s strategy is to talk past questions and wait for the controversy to die down. To a degree, that may work. Ironically, though, FAU never will get totally past the controversy because of that very prominent placing of GEO’s name.
FAU envisioned the stadium as the center of a new, more traditional campus. Now, the stadium is forever linked to every GEO controversy. Dr. Saunders called the $6 million “transformational.” She’s right, but not in the way she intended.
for The Post Editorial Board