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FAU President Mary Jane Saunders resigns

After months of controversy, Florida Atlantic University President Mary Jane Saunders has resigned — though she’ll still retain a job on campus and most of her salary.

In a resignation letter submitted to the university late Tuesday, Saunders highlighted FAU’s progress in academics and student success, but also noted “there is no doubt the recent controversies have been significant and distracting to all members of the University community.”

Saunders also cited “fiercely negative media coverage” as a factor in her decision.

Saunders’ university employment contract guarantees her a spot on the FAU faculty, at 80 percent of her current salary. That means Saunders will earn roughly $276,000 in her new role as a College of Science professor assigned to research the feasibility of developing a physician’s assistant program at FAU. The average professor salary at FAU is about $71,000.

“That may be debatable for some people,” acknowledged FAU Board of Trustees Chairman Anthony Barbar. “However, this is the contract that was unanimously approved by the board when she was hired.”

Barbar said the board had “absolutely not” pressured Saunders to resign, and that the former president “does not deserve all the criticism she’s received.” The university hopes to select an interim president by fall semester, and Barbar said he’s optimistic the school is solidly headed in the right direction. Student enrollment, he noted, is at an all-time high.

The recent problems under Saunders’ tenure included a professor accused of leading a so-called “Jesus stomp” classroom exercise (which he insisted had been mischaracterized); a decision to name the football stadium after a private prison company that donated $6 million (which was withdrawn after student protests); and a second professor who repeatedly angered the public by espousing conspiracy theories related to large-scale American tragedies. That communications professor, James Tracy, has suggested that both the Sandy Hook mass shooting in Connecticut and the Boston Marathon bombing may have been staged events.

Saunders had been heavily involved in the university’s decision to name its new stadium for Boca Raton-based GEO Group, an idea that prompted the nickname “Owlcatraz” after FAU’s mascot. When critics of the naming decision highlighted GEO’s questionable human-rights record, Saunders and the FAU trustees initially refused to reconsider. Ultimately, though, the public outcry won out and the company withdrew its gift.

The low point during the stadium debate came when about 20 student protesters confronted Saunders as she headed to her car to leave the university’s Jupiter campus. In a hurry to escape the tense situation, Saunders struck 22-year-old student Britni Hiatt with her right side mirror — and then kept driving. Saunders has said she feared for her safety, though Hiatt sees it differently.

“By the book, it was a hit-and-run,” said Hiatt, who sustained an orange-sized bruise and has since hired a lawyer. “She hit me with her vehicle and proceeded to exit the scene without stopping her vehicle whatsoever.”

During the professor-related controversies at FAU, Saunders was criticized for her crisis management. The board of trustees last month blasted her for the public perception that “the lunatics have taken over the asylum.” One trustee specifically complained that FAU appeared unable to get a handle on issues early on, and instead small-scale problems repeatedly spiraled out of control.

Saunders lasted nearly three years as FAU’s sixth president — joining the university in 2010 after serving as provost at Cleveland State University. Although she’s a Massachusetts native (and speaks with a slight New England accent), Saunders was well-acquainted with Florida’s state university system, having spent 17 years at the University of South Florida. Saunders, who boasts degrees in biology and botany, ran USF’s Institute for Biomolecular Science.

After FAU’s recent embarrassments, Professor Chris Robé — head of the university’s faculty union — said Saunders’ departure was somewhat expected. The university had raised eyebrows when it cancelled this month’s board of trustees meeting, something Robé called “highly unusual” and never before seen in his nine years at the school.

Soon after, Saunders was gone.

Robé said there are some among the faculty who blame Saunders for the university’s woes, while others believe the board of trustees is more culpable, and that Saunders was simply doing their bidding. Robé said the trustees — many of whom are business leaders appointed by the governor — are sometimes unfamiliar with the core concepts of academic freedom and tenure that faculty hold dear.

FAU’s next president will have to delicately balance those competing philosophies, he said.

“I feel for whoever is going to be in there, in that position, because it’s not easy,” Robé said. “Hopefully that person can negotiate it better.”