When St. Thomas University law student Diego Sanchez first saw that his school’s new chief financial officer was on the board of AR-15 assault rifle maker American Outdoor Brands, he says he was surprised — then disappointed.
Anita Britt was named CFO and chief administrative officer of St. Thomas, a non-profit co-ed Catholic University in Miami Gardens, on Jan. 5, shortly after retiring from Perry Ellis International.
She joined American Outdoor’s board Feb. 6, eight days before the Parkland school shooting.
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Sanchez learned about Britt’s status through a petition created in the wake of the shooting that called on Britt to immediately resign her position. The document, which currently has about 300 signatures, was first reported by the Miami New Times.
Sanchez figured his school’s response would be to do the right thing and urge Britt to step down.
Then came Monsignor Franklyn M. Casale’s public response: There was no conflict with the school’s Catholic values and Britt’s serving on American Outdoor’s board, he said.
“Ms. Britt’s position with American Outdoor Brands provides her the opportunity to participate in helping the company achieve its objectives of making our communities safer and [sic] that her role with the company does not conflict with her responsibilities here at St. Thomas,” Casale wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Herald.
Casale noted that American Outdoor had recently made a statement “indicating that the company shares the nation’s grief over the incomprehensible and senseless loss of life at Parkland, and directed university community members to explore the company’s response further on its investor relations page.
“I was like, no, this is too much,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez, a 27-year-old who served as student government association president as a St. Thomas undergrad, is now urging his fellow students to sign the petition. St. Thomas has an enrollment of 6,300.
Sanchez says the university’s stated goal of becoming the leading Catholic school in the Southeast will be undermined if Britt continues to serve on American Outdoor’s board.
“It’s the same thing as saying our thoughts and prayers are with you — but to everything else, ‘We don’t care, because we’re okay with being on the board of a gun manufacturer,’” he said.
Britt referred a request for comment to St. Thomas communications director Marlen Lebish, who referred back to Casale’s letter. In its statement announcing her board appointment, American Outdoor said Britt was “an accomplished financial executive.” The company did not immediately respond to request for comment. American Outdoor pays board members more than $100,000 in annual compensation, according to a company filing.
Some on St. Thomas’ faculty are also pushing back. On Monday, the faculty’s executive faculty forum passed a resolution disagreeing with Casale’s conclusion that there was no conflict of interest. It will be submitted to the wider faculty for a vote Thursday.
Darrell Arnold, vice chair of the faculty forum, said he wondered what the reaction among the school’s religious leadership would be if an administrator announced they had joined the board of Planned Parenthood, or even a contraceptive maker. The Archdiocese of Miami did not respond to a request for comment.
“I understand [American Outdoors] would want to have a leader of a Christian college on their board...they want it to be seen as aligned with Christianity and American values,” he said. “It’s not clear to me what St. Thomas has to gain from this.”
The petition calling for Britt to step down from the American Outdoor board was created by Praveen Kathpal, an Alexandria, Va., resident who says he has been active in anti-gun-violence initiatives since a 2017 shooting at Congressional baseball practice struck the YMCA his son attends. He discovered Britt’s presence on American Outdoor’s board while reviewing the gun manufacturer’s website. American Outdoor is the parent company of Smith and Wesson.
“We recognized that if individual influential people are urged to confront their place [in] America’s gun violence epidemic through societal pressure, they might make different choices and those choices could have a big impact,” Kathpal said in an email. He has created a similar petition calling for the resignation of an AR-15 board member who is CEO of a Cincinnati company.
Sanchez says he is glad Kathpal created the petition calling out Britt.
“At first I wasn’t planning on being vocal about it, but when I saw the [monsignor’s] statement, it motivated me — it’s ridiculous for the university to send out a statement like that,” Sanchez said.