After an initial round of meetings and interviews, the question of who will become the University of West Florida’s next president is down to just four finalists.
The four — chosen by a 20-member search committee — have been invited to take part in on-campus interviews next week. A schedule of those interviews, which are open to the public under Florida’s sunshine law, is available on UWF’s website. The search committee will then reconvene Thursday morning to recommend at least three of the four finalists to the university’s Board of Trustees, which will meet immediately afterward to select the new president.
So who are the finalists?
Dr. Martha Saunders, UWF Provost
The only current UWF administrator among the four finalists, Saunders is also the only finalist to have previously run a university, having served as the president of the University of Southern Mississippi from 2007 to 2012 and as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater from 2005 to 2007.
Dr. Saunders holds a doctorate in communication theory and research from Florida State University, a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Georgia, and a bachelor’s degree in French from the University of Southern Mississippi.
In addition to provost, Saunders also currently serves as UWF’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, having managed the university’s budget and day-to-day operations since October 2014, when she took over those duties from outgoing UWF president Judy Bense. In that role, Saunders has reorganized the university’s academic colleges and departments. At Southern Miss, Saunders was credited with helping set record enrollment and fundraising totals, overseeing the school’s centennial celebration, and directing more than $250 million in facilities improvements.
Though Saunders’ record is impressive, it isn’t without controversy. Her resignation from Southern Miss in 2012 came the same day that news broke about a $1 million deficit in the school’s athletic department, though university officials denied any connection and Saunders was never accused of any wrongdoing. Records later revealed Saunders fell out of favor with the state’s university board, and that Saunders’ statement that she was resigning for personal reasons was negotiated as part of her separation agreement.
In 2014, Saunders was one of three finalists for the presidency of the College of Charleston, S.C., but the job went to then-Lt. Governor Glenn McConnell.
State Senator Don Gaetz
The only finalist without a Ph.D., Gaetz has presented himself as a “non-traditional candidate,” noting that both the current chancellor of the Florida’s university system and his predecessor came from the world of business and government rather than academia. Gaetz does hold a bachelors degree from Concordia College and a masters degree from Troy University.
Gaetz has served as a state senator since 2006, including a stint as Senate President from 2013 to 2014. Prior to that, Gaetz served from 2000 to 2006 as Okaloosa County’s superintendent of schools, where he aggressively cut district administration costs, replaced principals, and gave schools more control over spending. By the time he was elected to the state senate, the school district had leapfrogged 20-odd other Florida counties to become one of the top-ranked school districts in the state, with 32 of 36 schools earning “A” grades (the other 4 earned “B” grades).
Prior to entering public office, Gaetz held a number of executive positions in the healthcare industry before cofounding VITAS Corporation, a hospice care provider. The company started out with three employees in 1983; by the time Gaetz left his management role in 2000, it had grown into one of the world’s largest hospice providers, with more than 5,000 employees in 19 states. The company is now being sued by the federal Department of Justice, which has accused it of submitting tens of millions of dollars in fraudulent Medicare claims for more than a decade, dating back to the final years of Gaetz’s time 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.
As we’ve reported, at least one third of the 30 people on either the selection committee or board of trustees have direct connections to Gaetz, having previously donated to Gaetz family political campaigns.
Dr. Frank Ashley
Ashley has served since 2013 as a senior vice president at The College Board, a nonprofit best known for administering SAT exams. The only African-American among the four finalists, Ashley previously served as a vice chancellor and chief of staff for the 11-campus, Texas A&M University System. As vice chancellor, Ashley managed academic affairs, recruitment, and diversity efforts for the university system, which serves more than 100,000 students.
Ashley began his academic career as a classroom science teacher before transitioning into higher education, holding a number of positions with Texas A&M University, including director of admissions and dean of the school’s College of Education.
In addition to a bachelors degree from Louisiana College, Dr. Ashley holds both a masters and a doctorate degree from the University of Alabama.
Dr. Mike Sherman
Since joining the University of Akron in 2010, Sherman has served in a variety of roles, including senior vice president, provost, and chief operating officer. Since January of this year, Sherman has served as the university’s vice president of innovation and economic development as well as chief operating officer of its research foundation. Before joining Akron, Sherman served as the vice provost for academic planning and a professor of sport and exercise science at The Ohio State University.
Sherman holds a bachelors degree from Ohio University, a masters degree from Ball State University, and a doctorate from the University of Texas.
In 2014, Sherman was one of three finalists for the chancellorship at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. That job went to Dr. Mark Mone, a longtime faculty member.