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State Senator Don Gaetz and University of West Florida provost Martha Saunders, two of the leading candidates to become UWF’s next president, interviewed with a presidential search committee Tuesday.

The 20-member committee spent about an hour with each candidate, asking each the same set of questions.

The search committee concluded three days of interviews on Wednesday, after which committee members whittled the remaining list of candidates down to just eight finalists. The committee is set to meet again on September 6, when they’ll choose at least three finalists to return for additional on-campus interviews. Ultimately, the committee will recommend at least three finalists to the university’s Board of Trustees, which is slated to make the final decision on who will be UWF’s next president by September 15.

In addition to Gaetz and Saunders, other remaining finalists include James Applegate, Frank Ashley, Ronald Elsenbaumer, Bahman Ghorashi, Mike Sherman, and Alan Utter. Aside from Gaetz, each of the remaining finalists has extensive higher education experience. Gaetz, who served as a healthcare executive before entering politics in 2000, will leave the State Senate at the end of the year due to term limits.

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State Sen. Don Gaetz was interviewed Tuesday by UWF’s presidential search committee. (Drew Buchanan/The Pulse)

Saunders focused on her academic career, which has included stints as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and president of the University of Southern Mississippi, as well as her efforts over the past three years as UWF’s provost. In particular, Saunders cited her work to reorganize the university’s colleges and departments, an effort that led in part to her 2014 promotion to executive vice president, with oversight of UWF’s daily operations and budget management.

Saunders was well received by selection committee members, who lauded her extensive resume and accomplishments at UWF. One committee member went as far as to say Saunders would “definitely” be on the list of finalists recommended to the Board of Trustees.

Introducing himself as a “non-traditional candidate,” Gaetz sought to defuse concerns over his lack of a Ph.D. degree by pointing out that both the current chancellor of the state university system and his predecessor came from the world of business and government rather than academia. Over the course of the hourlong interview, Gaetz focused largely on his time as Okaloosa County’s superintendent of schools and a state senator, as well as his experience running VITAS, the hospice healthcare company he co-founded and managed until 2000.

One area where Gaetz and Saunders disagreed is on the issue of guns on campus. Saunders was firm in her opposition, a position shared by the vast majority of college presidents nationwide. “Let me be clear,” Saunders said. “I oppose guns on campus.”

Gaetz, on the other hand, was equally direct in his support. “I believe in the Second Amendment,” said Gaetz. “I support the Second Amendment. I think the answer to the issue is not to pretend the Second Amendment doesn’t exist. The answer to the issue, I believe, is to make sure that our campus is so safe that people that people wouldn’t feel as though they would need protection.”

A 2015 poll conducted by the University of South Florida found that 73% of Floridians oppose guns on college campuses.

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UWF presidential search committee members interview State Sen. Don Gaetz, a finalist for the position. (Drew Buchanan/The Pulse)

Most search committee members spoke in support of Gaetz following his interview. “He is one of the most remarkable leaders I have ever seen in my life,” said P.C. Wu, a committee member and Pensacola city councilman. “Everything that he has touched has been successful.”

“He’s the strongest leader that we’ve interviewed so far,” said Steve Riggs, an accountant and past donor to Gaetz’s political campaigns. “Obviously a very strong candidate that I think will move forward.”

Dr. Rick Harper, one of the university’s assistant vice presidents and a senior economic adviser to the Florida Senate during Gaetz’s tenure as president, said he found Gaetz to be “smart and well-informed.”

However, several of the committee’s academics took issue with Gaetz. “He has no Ph.D. and no experience in higher education,” said Christopher Thrasher, a UWF graduate student. “I find his ideas about research a little problematic. I find it troubling that he advocates economic value over intellectual curiosity as the primary driver for research.”

Dr. Steven Kass, a professor of psychology, echoed Thrasher’s concerns. “I found his views on research quite disconcerting,” said Kass.

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UWF presidential search committee members P.C. Wu and Garrett Walton listen as State Sen. Don Gaetz answers questions during his interview Tuesday. (Drew Buchanan/The Pulse)

As we reported earlier this month, at least a third of the 30 people serving on either the search committee or Board of Trustees have donated to Gaetz’s past political campaigns, including Lewis Bear, Jr., the Board of Trustees’ chairman. The board’s conflict of interest policy doesn’t prevent those trustees who have given to Gaetz’s campaigns from voting on the presidential selection.

Patricia Lott, UWF’s general counsel, said Tuesday that she had spoken with the Florida Commission on Ethics and was told the campaign contributions did not constitute a conflict, but that committee members should be reminded of the state’s rules prohibiting elected officials from engaging in lobbying for two years after they leave office. Should he be selected as UWF’s new president, those rules could prevent Gaetz from personally lobbying state legislators for funding for the university.

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