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Nancy Smith

FAU's Not-Soon-Enough-Forgotten Mary Jane Saunders

May 21, 2013 - 6:00pm

I always stand up for strong women in high places. Ask anybody. Hillary Clinton, Janet Reno, Paula Dockery, Marion Hammer -- in times of adversity, I've gone to bat for all of them and more. But Mary Jane Saunders? Not in this lifetime.

Turns out the $200,000-a-year Florida Atlantic University president was just a woman in a high place.

It's bad enough that she ran down a student protester with her car and failed to quell controversies over two professors' lessons -- one involving stepping on the name Jesus, and the other claiming the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre and Boston Marathon bombing were hoaxes.

What sends Saunders to the top of the wuss list for me is the stunning lack of backbone she showed by failing to defend a $6 million naming rights contract for the university's new stadium.

I know you haven't forgotten.

In February the GEO Group, a private prison operator whose corporate headquarters overlook the stadium, was set to hand over the $6 million, to be paid out over 12 years through the company's foundation. It would have been the largest deal of its kind in Florida Atlantics athletic history. Saunders at first celebrated, ballyhooing the goodies the money would bring -- athletic operations, the stadium, scholarships, even academic priorities.

But, wait! A private prison operator? A company with a track record of human rights violations, opposed by civil liberty groups and immigrant rights organizations? The state media jumped all over it; then the national media with story after story of poor immigrants mistreated in a GEO facility.

Progressive poppycock filled the air.

All it took in the end was about 100 hostile protesters to show up on campus on a Monday morning and President Saunders caved like a rubber boat. She couldn't put up a fight. Didn't know what to say. At one point during the week she did deliver this immensely forgettable line:This is a tough economic time. I dont think well ever be at a point where we can get all of our social issues perfect.

And GEO was watching. The company finally put Saunders out of her misery by rescinding its offer. All of a sudden the stadium -- which opened in the fall of 2011, cost $70 million and seats more than 29,000 -- is back in the red.

There was every reason for Saunders to fight for the deal, too. GEOs chairman, George Zoley, has two degrees from Florida Atlantic and once served as chairman of the board of trustees. Four members of the board have also worked for the GEO Group, including two past student government presidents. Geographically, the company is practically attached to the FAU campus.

But she never presented GEO's case, never compared the decades of abuses at public and military prisons with those in private facilities. Saunders could have done the media's homework for them, given us all a lesson in the American prison system as a profit-making industry. But she started on her heels and finished in full retreat.

Private corporations, by the way, operate more than 200 prisons nationwide and are traded on the New York Stock Exchange. In spite of the hysteria, they aren't some dirty, barely legal, back-alley business shrouded in secrecy. During civil rights lawsuits, all constitutional requirements that apply to government-funded prisons apply to private ones as well.

What most people don't know -- but Saunders could have related -- is that in its current form prison privatization began in 1984 as a result of the War on Drugs. While crime rates otherwise remained steady dating back to 1925, the number of arrests quickly exploded. It was actually President Reagans Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 that kick-started the prison boom.

Today, believe it or not, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world 754 inmates per 100,000 residents as of 2008, or roughly 600 percent that of the rest of the civilized world. And private corporations house more than 99,000 inmates in 260 facilities nationwide.

The point being, when states are overwhelmed, they look for help.

Personally, I don't care whether the state of Florida or a private company like GEO operates any part of our prison system. I have no dog in that particular hunt and probably neither does Mary Jane Saunders. But I have absolutely no doubt that as president of FAU, Saunders' first thought should have been protecting that $6 million egg like a mother hen on the nest.

She let a company that holds nearly $3 billion in assets -- a neighbor, a community philanthropist, a natural for a stadium naming deal -- slip through her grasp because she didn't have the spine to defy the mobs and the media. Mary Jane Saunders didn't bring the heat.

At least back in the classroom where she's going, she won't have to.

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at (850) 727-0859.

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