Even with new dorms and its own football team, the challenge for Florida Atlantic University has been simply getting noticed more-established state universities such as the University of Florida often gobble up most of the media attention.
This semester, though, FAU has no problem attracting the limelight. The catch: FAUs newfound name recognition is happening in the worst kind of way.
In the span of a few short months (and spring semester still isnt over), FAU faculty and/or administrators have bizarrely questioned whether the Sandy Hook mass shooting really occurred, agreed to name the football stadium after a private prison operator known for human rights violations, and, most recently, received national scorn for a so-called Jesus stomp classroom lesson that infuriated Christians and Florida Gov. Rick Scott.
The backlash to that class lesson which involved students being told to write Jesus on a piece of paper, and then put that paper on the ground and step on it has been so strong that FAU on Friday placed the professor involved on administrative leave, citing concerns for his personal safety.
The string of missteps have highlighted how quickly a damaging news story can go viral in the social-media age, and FAU leaders are quick to acknowledge theyve had their hands full.
This is new ground for every public university president, said FAU President Mary Jane Saunders. Social media is a new day in communications, and I believe were all struggling with how to get this to be balanced and accurate.
Said FAU Board of Trustees chairman Anthony Barbar: We have tried to deal with things as best we can.
Others at the university, however, complain that FAU leaders have repeatedly made matters worse with how theyve handled the controversies.
A pattern that were seeing in all of these PR crises, which theyve really caused themselves, is an unwillingness to really address the issue at hand, which only compounds them, said FAU graduate student Anole Halper, one of those fighting the stadium naming. Just a general incompetence at managing difficult situations.
One huge unanswered question is whether there will be any lingering long-term damage to FAUs institutional reputation a problem that could affect everything from attracting new students to securing private charitable donations. Certainly, the negative media attention will fade away over time, but does that mean the public will automatically forget?
The recent troubles for Boca Raton-based FAU began in January, when news spread that communications associate professor James Tracy had suggested Connecticuts Sandy Hook school shooting tragedy was being manipulated to promote a gun-control legislative agenda. In one posting on his private blog, Tracy wrote While it sounds like an outrageous claim, one is left to inquire whether the Sandy Hook shooting ever took place at least in the way law enforcement authorities and the nations news media have described.
FAU officials quickly backed away from Tracys comments (and correctly noted his website was not affiliated with the university). But the nations collective gasp was swift and severe: the top elected official in Newtown, Conn., called Tracy an embarrassment who deserved to be fired.