CFO Jeff Atwater's interest in university post creates political scramble

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauJanuary 7, 2014 

TALLAHASSEE — Two Republican heavyweights emerged as frontrunners for the next president of troubled Florida Atlantic University on Monday as a selection committee picked the two politicians along with eight academics to interview.

Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux both want the job with a base salary of as much as $345,000 and free housing in an on-campus mansion.

But the possibility of a politician for president of the nearly 30,000-student university was not without controversy as one member of the selection committee, university benefactor Dick Schmidt, warned that the university's attempt to mend its public image could backfire.

"If we fill this thing with politicians, in my opinion, this process will get ugly," said Schmidt, a retired real estate and aviation executive who gave $75 million to the college to build a teaching hospital on the campus.

In the last year, the Boca Raton-based university has battled a series of public relations challenges. One FAU professor said the shooting rampage at the the Sandy Hook, Conn., elementary school and the Boston Marathon bombing were staged. Another professor was criticized for a classroom exercise on symbolism termed the "Jesus Stomp." And the former university president, Mary Jane Saunders, was forced to reverse a plan to name the 30,000-seat football stadium after a private prison company, the GEO Group.

"I've got 17 pages of articles that are negative and I don't want this to be criticized for this becoming a political race," Schmidt told his colleagues on the committee. He told the Times/Herald after the meeting that he wants the next president to have experience in higher education administration and preferably research.

But Andrew Barbar, chairman of both the search committee and the university's board of trustees, said the university should consider all prospects. "We have to keep our mind open to all," he said. "It may be an academic. It may be a political leader."

Public universities have a long history of picking politicians to run their institutions. In Florida, where the Legislature keeps a tight rein on university budgets and Gov. Rick Scott has made it a campaign promise not to raise university tuition, the relationship can be crucial.

"The skill sets of high-ranking politicians and university presidents are not dissimilar," said Ed Moore, president of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida, a consortium of private colleges.

Atwater surprised the political world Saturday when he announced he was in contention for the university's top job. If he gets the job, he'll leave behind a safe seat on the state Cabinet and open the door for political dominoes to fall. LeMieux indicated his interest in the job last month.

The unusual match-up pits two fiesty campaigners against each other in a tight time frame. The panel has said it will name three finalists by the end of the week with final selection Jan. 17.

Atwater, who holds two finance degrees from the University of Florida, is considered likely to be the favorite. A cautious politician and former Senate president, Atwater waited until the final weekend to announce his intentions.

LeMieux, who served as chief of staff and campaign manager to former Gov. Charlie Crist, was named by Crist to the U.S. Senate to complete the term of former Sen. Mel Martinez in 2009. He served for 16 months and later became a vocal critic of Crist when the former governor changed parties. He graduated from Emory University and Georgetown University law school.

Neither man has held a job in education, but both say they have education credentials through policy and leadership roles. Scott, who has no direct role in the decision, praised both candidates, saying LeMieux would "do an outstanding job as president" but also noting that "FAU would be well served to have a leader like Jeff at the helm."

If Atwater gets the job, several candidates from both parties are already lining up for the coveted Cabinet post.

Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said Monday he would consider running. Both House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz released statements saying it's premature to determine whether they'd be interested.

State Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, who ran unsuccessfully for CFO in 2006, said he would be a good fit. "It's a job that matches my skill set very well and my professional experience," he said.

Democratic Sen. Jeff Clemens, of Lake Worth, said he is considering running. And Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, who also applied for the FAU job but was rejected by the search committee, is being heavily recruited for the post, said Sen. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek.

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