An online petition joins the UWF Faculty Senate in opposition to Gaetz’s selection as president.
A group of students from the University of West Florida, joining the school’s faculty, are calling on the university’s board of trustees to not choose Florida state Senator Don Gaetz as the institution’s sixth president.
The group began circulating an online petition Friday that has been steadily garnering signatures and are planning a student-led protest leading up to the final selection of a new president this week.
“It’s our responsibility to say this is how we feel and this is where we want to go with our future as Argonauts,” said Abigail Megginson, a UWF sophomore who co-authored the petition. “As students, we want to see a fair process for selecting the next president.”
Megginson, along with fellow UWF student Leonie Dupuis, are the Argonauts behind the #ArgosAgainstGaetz petition they hope will spread before this week’s final vote by the search committee and selection by the board of trustees.
Megginson and Dupuis cite Gaetz’s lack of qualifications for the $300,000 a year job as chief reasons for the petition.
“From September 11-14, 2016, four finalists for the University of West Florida’s Presidential Search will step foot onto UWF property for on-campus interviews and open forums,” reads the petition. “Although there are four candidates, one obviously sticks out.”
The petition presents several differences that mark a contrast between Gaetz and the three other presidential finalists. Gaetz does not hold a doctorate degree, lacks any experience in higher-education, has little support among UWF faculty and staff, and has diverging positions with faculty on university research.
“His stance on research and the fact he doesn’t have a Ph.D. doesn’t sit well with us,” said Megginson, a sophomore studying journalism and political science.
The current state senator and former healthcare executive holds a bachelor’s degree in religion and political science from Concordia College and a master’s degree in public administration from Troy State University.
In drafting the qualifications for the next president, members of the presidential search committee lobbied to not require a doctoral degree for the position, which is routine for university presidents.
Megginson and Dupuis believe that was unfair to both the students and UWF community.
“As students, we want to see the process be fair,” Megginson said. “I think deep down there’s a little bit of a predisposition for Gaetz by the both the board of trustees and the search committee.”
Last month, The Pulse revealed the financial ties between Gaetz and at least 10 members of the board of trustees and search committee who have contributed thousands of dollars to Gaetz campaigns over the past decade.
One of those contributors to Gaetz is Pensacola developer Collier Merrill. For years, Merrill has used his companies to evade campaign contribution limits placed on individuals.
“I think Don Gaetz has done a fantastic job as a representative for Northwest Florida,” Merrill said last month. “If it’s a conflict that we contributed to his campaigns, that’s ludicrous. I feel the president’s role needs to be bringing in money. Someone like Don who has a proven track record would be great.”
The petition also expresses concern over a pending Department of Justice lawsuit involving Gaetz’s former company, VITAS Corporation.
The U.S. Department of Justice has accused VITAS of submitting tens of millions of dollars in fraudulent Medicare claims for more than a decade, dating back to when Gaetz’s served on the company’s board. Gaetz has denied any knowledge of the issues, noting that he hasn’t held any role with the company since 2004.
“Were this pending lawsuit to go to court during Gaetz’s potential presidency, this would bring negative publicity to UWF and distract Gaetz from his presidential duties,” reads the petition.
Dupuis, a biomedical science major, is a Canadian citizen living in the U.S and said she holds a unique perspective.
“As a U.S. resident with Canadian citizenship, the matters that involve UWF are really the only matters I can voice my opinion on,” said Dupuis.
Dupuis said while she does believe in the process, she would like the university to give more of a voice to students.
“I wouldn’t say the process is unfair but the fact that the voice of faculty and students was not considered as seriously as it could have been is frustrating,” said Dupuis. “I just don’t think there’s enough student representation.”
“The idea behind the petition is to make students realize there is something at stake with this search,” Dupuis added. “I understand students are here for only a short time, but we’re still the ones who will be most affected with the choice of a new president.”
The students would like the university to go one step further to increase student representation on the board of trustees, like many other state institutions across the country.
“I would like to see at least one more representative on the board of trustees and search committee,” Megginson urged. “I think it’s difficult for those voting on our behalf to understand where we as students are coming from.”