Leadership & Governance

Florida Atlantic U. Chief Cites Crushing Media Scrutiny in Resignation

May 15, 2013

Mary Jane Saunders, who announced her resignation as Florida Atlantic University's president on Wednesday, said she was not ready for the intense media scrutiny that came with the job and fears other public-university presidents are similarly unprepared.

Ms. Saunders was named president of the Boca Raton institution in 2010, and she spent much of the last several months in damage-control mode.

Florida Atlantic received national media attention in January, when a tenured professor publicly questioned whether the shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Conn., actually happened. Scores of news articles and blog posts came months later, when an instructor asked students to step on a piece of paper with "Jesus" written on it as part of a classroom exercise.

Ms. Saunders also drew fire when the university announced plans to give its football stadium's naming rights to a private prison operator that has been accused of human-rights violations. "The extent of being a quote-unquote public figure was something that I really, truly wasn't prepared for," Ms. Saunders, who was previously provost of Cleveland State University, said in an interview on Wednesday.

Ms. Saunders said she was caught off guard when news articles, often fueled by attacks on social media, directed criticism "toward me personally rather than the institution." In 24-hour news cycles, where in minutes a few Twitter feeds about a controversy can construct a narrative that may be faulty, Ms. Saunders said she felt powerless to correct what she described as inaccuracies that piled up across the blogosphere.

"People have to think about what it's going to mean for big public universities in an era of social media—what can and can't be controlled," she said.

While it may be true that news articles cannot be controlled, at least one Florida Atlantic trustee publicly argued that the university's public relations could have been better managed.

"What concerns me is we have systemic events, repetitive issues that happen at a small level, and they keep getting bigger and bigger," Robert J. Stilley, a trustee, said at an April board meeting that was covered by the South Florida Sun Sentinel. "That tells me something is not right at the university."

'Not Under Our Control'

The notion that university presidents can somehow keep a story local is out of date, Ms. Saunders said.

"It's not under our control," she said. "An expectation that a president can control the behavior of their students and faculty is unrealistic at best. Things not going national—that era is over."

In recent weeks it became clear to Ms. Saunders that she had become the story, and that fact made her a compromised diplomat for the university, she said.

Last week Florida Atlantic officials invited local news outlets to cover a groundbreaking for a 5,000-square-foot extension to a center for treating patients with Alzheimer's disease and dementia. Reporters often shrug at ribbon cuttings, but there was no shortage of them at the event. Ms. Saunders quickly realized, however, that the journalists in attendance had few questions about the university's research. But they had plenty of questions about her future at the university.

"TV vans were there, and the coverage was hostile toward me, not positive toward the groundbreaking," Ms. Saunders said. "Here we had a great story, and it wasn't even mentioned in passing. That really was a turning point. If we can't get reports about the good things going on, then we've reached a point where there needed to be a change in leadership."

Ms. Saunders said she had resigned of her own accord, and was "begged" to stay by her board chairman.

Anthony K.G. Barbar, the chairman, said in a letter released on Wednesday by the university that he "regretfully" had accepted the president's resignation.

"Throughout her time as president," Mr. Barbar wrote, "she consistently demonstrated a genuine love for the university, its students, and the community. She has been fully committed, morning, day, and night, to the betterment of FAU. We thank President Saunders for her service and dedication to the university."

Ms. Saunders, who holds a Ph.D. in botany, said she planned to join the Florida Atlantic faculty. Asked if she might consider another presidency at some point, Ms. Saunders said, "I'd have to ask how many newspapers are in town first."