Saturday, June 22, 2024

FAU Board at War With Itself—Dental School at Stake?

These days in Florida, open defiance of the DeSantis administration is rare.

It’s happening at Florida Atlantic University.

Last week’s meeting of FAU’s trustees revealed the civil war on the board over the presidential search. On one side is Chair Brad Levine. On the other is Vice Chair Barbara Feingold.

Levine opened the meeting by defending the search, which State University System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues halted over what Rodrigues called “anomalies.” That July 7 action came two days after the search committee, which Levine chairs, chose three finalists who did not include State Rep. Randy Fine, R-Brevard, a DeSantis ally and the governor’s stated choice to lead FAU despite his lack of any higher education experience.

Feingold, who has claimed to speak for the governor and is vice chair of the search committee responded with a rant that began, “I am really angry.” Of Levine, Feingold said, “I’m not happy with you not presenting the truth” about the search.

“What’s going to happen to Dick Schmidt?” Feingold went on. Richard Schmidt, a search committee member, also defended the process in a Sun Sentinel commentary. “How is the university going to go after him?” (Italics mine.) The Schmidt Family Foundation is FAU’s largest private donor.

Feingold then disparaged two of the finalists, saying she didn’t vote for them and making inaccurate or misleading statements about their records. By defending the search, Feingold claimed, Levine had violated the non-disclosure agreement that the 15 committee members signed.

Levine’s public comments about the search, Feingold said, were “highly inappropriate, highly embarrassing and put us in a very bad position.”

In fact, though Feingold accused Levine of “self-appointing yourself” to speak for the committee, the agreement she cited allows Levine to do so. It does not appear to prohibit any comments Levine has made about the search.

In one way, this civil war is one-sided. Based on comments at the end of the meeting, Levine seems to have support from 10 of the other 12 trustees. All public comment, some of it from FAU faculty, also backed Levine and the search. Only Linda Stoch, a former interior designer, backed Feingold.

DeSantis named Feingold and Stoch to the board. But five other trustees who support Levine also are DeSantis appointees. Four others received their appointments from the Board of Governors, which oversees the university system and which the governor indirectly controls through appointments. Two other spots go to the Faculty Senate and student body presidents.

The search committee had hoped at least to name a successor to John Kelly by now, with students having returned for the fall semester. The Board of Governors, however, has indicated that the inspector general’s investigation of the search may not be complete until November.

I tried to confirm that timetable through the State University System’s media relations office. An email said the office would “provide a statement at the conclusion of the investigation.” Several follow-up emails and phone calls about the timetable didn’t yield even a response.

Meanwhile, FAU remains in limbo. I reported last month that interims fill several key positions. Several speakers last week praised Interim President Stacy Volnick but noted that she can’t fill any of those vacancies.

Fine faces an investigation by the Florida Ethics Commission for seeking to extract political revenge. On Saturday, Fine tweeted, “Time to make room for another scalp.” He has deleted that comment.

On Sept. 11, the board was scheduled to hold a retreat. The plan now is for a virtual meeting—with a short agenda. 

FAU dental school at stake?

Apparently, there can be no discussion of FAU’s president without a discussion of FAU’s dental school.

On the agenda for last week’s trustees’ meeting was approval of a request for money from the Legislature toward the school. When the Board of Governors approved the school, it listed several conditions that FAU must meet to open the facility in the fall of 2026. First on that list is “securing sufficient funding from the state legislature and other sources…”

This year, Tallahassee gave the school $30 million for construction and $10 million for operating expenses. But the building is expected to cost $85 million. At the meeting, Levine asked about the reported $30 million expected from a private donor. A rendering of the building shows it named for Jeffrey Feingold—Barbara Feingold’s late husband. He founded a nationwide chain of dental clinics.

Faculty Senate President Kim Dunn asked if the trustees needed regular updates on whether FAU is meeting those conditions. Which prompted a disclosure from Feingold.

That $30 million “could happen,” she said. But she is “one of those donors who are concerned” about the presidential search process that Levine defended. Feingold said she would wait for the outcome to decide.

As for the Board of Governors, Feingold said, “They’re not worried. I spoke to [them.]” Addressing Levine, she said, “You’re going to have a battle with me?”

Based on those comments—Feingold has declined interview requests—Feingold is conditioning that $30 million on whether she approves of the next president. She and Stoch also argued that FAU’s trustees answer to the Board of Governors and that the Legislature provides most of FAU’s budget.

The trustees will pick the president. The Board of Governors then must ratify it. Perhaps Feingold’s professed access to the governor matters most. Still, it’s reasonable at this point to believe that FAU’s dental school—which got to approval on a speeded-up schedule—could depend on who becomes president. Which might make some trustees wonder if the dental school is worth that ransom demand.

Gumbo Limbo Coastal Stewards announces new hires

Gumbo Limbo Nature Center

The Gumbo Limbo Coastal Stewards last week announced two key hires as the group works to restart Boca Raton’s sea turtle rehabilitation program.

Veterinarian Shelby Loos will hold the title of wildlife conservation director and run the program at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center. She received her degree from the University of Florida in 2017 and has a certificate in aquatic animal medicine.

Kelly McCorry will be conservation program manager. She has a bachelor’s degree in marine science. According to a news release, she previously was head zoologist at Palm Beach Zoo. Kara Protocorrera, another Palm Beach Zoo alum, has been named coordinator of rescue and rehabilitation.

According to the news release, the Stewards now have nine staff members. A representative said the group needs to hire two vet technicians before applying to the state for a new rehabilitation permit. With Loos in place, the Stewards will seek a permit that will allow at least the return of Gumbo Limbo’s two resident turtles.

Arrest made for school shooting threat

Fernando Rodrigo Gaete, photo courtesy of Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office

In the case of a man arrested last week for making threats against Logger’s Run Middle School, the system worked.

According to court documents, school police picked up two online postings by someone claiming to be “Dominic Valentine” and vowing “to shoot up” the school just north of Yamato Road on Jog Road. The sheriff’s office followed up and on Thursday arrested 22-year-old Fernando Rodrigo Gaete at the West Boca home where he lives with his parents.

Gaete, who attended Logger’s Run, told investigators that he was “very angry.” He faces two charges. Palm Beach County School Board Chairman Frank Barbieri, whose district includes West Boca, said the school was calm as the week ended.

Donation to FAU medical school

In happier news about FAU, the medical school has received an $11.5 million donation to study amyloidosis. It is a rare, fatal disease that causes protein buildup in organs, which then fail.

The gift came from Ann and John Wood of the FairfaxWood Scholarhip Foundation. According to a news release, the FairfaxWood Health & Technology Initiative will harness “the power of artificial intelligence and cutting-edge data science” to “de-silo single organ-focused researchers and clinicians who will conduct research to seek treatments and ultimately find a cure for amyloidosis.”

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Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.

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