Gaetz makes bid to become UWF president
By Jim Saunders
The News Service of Florida
State Sen. Don Gaetz is among more than 70 applicants seeking to become the next president of the University of West Florida.
Gaetz, 68, a Niceville Republican who led the Florida Senate as its president from 2012 to 2014, said Monday that he informed the consulting firm handling the search that he would like to be considered after he was nominated by several people.
A presidential search committee will meet Tuesday at the university’s Pensacola campus to go through the applications and decide which candidates will be asked for formal interviews.
After the interviews are conducted later this month and in September, the search committee is expected to forward three names to the university’s Board of Trustees, which is scheduled to pick the next president at a Sept. 15 meeting.
The overwhelming majority of applicants to replace President Judy Bense, who is retiring at the end of the year, have an academic background and include University of West Florida Provost and Executive Vice President Martha Saunders, who is a former president of the University of Southern Mississippi and the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
Gaetz, a former health-care executive, said he is “not looking for a job.”
“I’m not on the career path from dean to provost to president. I don’t believe I’m due any reward for past services. And I’m not interested in any other job in education,” Gaetz said.
But he said the University of West Florida was “my university,” citing his longtime association with the school, which serves about 13,000 students. Over the past 15 years, Gaetz said he has worked closely with faculty, administrators and trustees to create career technical and STEM education programs.
He said he has helped the school secure some $90 million in campus projects, improve its endowment opportunities and create an economic development fund that has helped generate about 7,000 jobs.
“I even served on a presidential search committee at UWF a couple of presidents ago,” Gaetz said. “I have a long history with the university.”
Gaetz’s bid for the job is not unusual in Florida. The state historically has picked a mix of university presidents that have academic, political or business backgrounds.
Florida State University President John Thrasher is a former state House speaker. University of North Florida President John Delaney is a former Jacksonville mayor.
In an interview last week, state university system Chancellor Marshall Criser III, who came to the academic world after being a corporate executive, cited several characteristics that make a successful university leader.
“They ought to be a dynamic personality who can communicate well with their stakeholders,” he said. “They need to understand how to run and operate a complex organization. And they need to be sensitive as to how an academic enterprise functions and what some of the relationships are that are embedded in academics.”
Although Gaetz knows or has personal relationships with members of the search committee and the school’s board of trustees, including Lewis Bear Jr., the trustees’ chairman, Gaetz said he has neither lobbied nor asked anyone to nominate him, saying it would be “unseemly.”
But Gaetz said people who approached him about the job told him “this university, my university, is poised for a major turn, which could be a turn for greatness.”
The key for improvement, Gaetz said, will be linking the university’s improvement to a series of measures, like student graduation rates and job placement, that will result in more public and private funding.
“What I’m being told is that my background in education, business and government in leading and managing according to performance measurements and doing so somewhat successfully may make me a good fit for the university’s needs now,” he said. “Of course that’s up to the selection committee and the board of trustees.”
Gaetz served six years on the Okaloosa County School Board and then six years as the county’s schools superintendent before getting elected to the Senate. He faces term limits in November but currently chairs the Senate’s budget subcommittee on education, which includes funding for universities, state colleges and public schools.
He sponsored legislation that set performance standards for Florida’s 12 universities as well as creating a category of “emerging pre-eminence” for the schools. Currently, the University of West Florida does not meet any of the pre-eminence standards and was second to last on the performance goals.
“There’s room for growth, room for improvement,” Gaetz said.
With a decade in the state Senate and as one of Florida’s top Republican leaders, Gaetz also has experience as a major fund-raiser, which is an asset for a university president.
“There are many disadvantages to having been in public office,” Gaetz said. “One advantage is that I have been asking people for money for a very long time, not just for political causes but charitable ones as well, including education causes.”