Blaming messy meeting recap, FIU leaders stall on ‘unnaming’ of campus

Florida International University announced that it will not investigate a conservative group’s leaked group chats which depicted racist and sexist jokes, citing free speech.
Florida International University announced that it will not investigate a conservative group’s leaked group chats which depicted racist and sexist jokes, citing free speech. Miami Herald file photo

After rehashing what was and wasn’t said at its previous meeting, the committee created out of the Florida International University Board of Trustees stalled Tuesday on the potential renaming — or “unnaming” — of its Modesto A. Maidique campus.

The ad hoc committee met in the Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum Tuesday morning to take action on a proposed plan to remove Maidique’s name from the University Park campus in time for a full board of trustees meeting Wednesday. But committee members complained that the recap of their Aug. 20 meeting wasn’t accurate and deliberated whether this was a good use of time and resources.

Trustee Natasha Lowell’s proposed plan to rename the campus, consider alternative naming options and identify another way to honor Maidique while involving him in the process, was approved last meeting in a 5-1 vote. She said Tuesday that she wants to include the reasons why the board is pursuing a name change in her plan, which has been criticized by many including Maidique, adding that she was “a little too premature” to suggest a plan without knowing how much it would cost and who would pay for it.

“We shouldn’t be focusing on something that really doesn’t create better value,” Lowell said. “But this committee does think renaming will create better value for the university.”

Trustees have previously said that stripping the campus of Maidique’s name could clear the way for a multimillion-dollar donor. But many, including trustee Cesar Alvarez, said stripping Maidique’s name appears vindictive and as an infringement of freedom of speech.

Maidique, who spent 23 years as president of FIU and is credited with doubling enrollment, expanding research expenditures and launching a medical school, law school and a Division I athletics program, has been outspoken about the university’s shortcomings. In 2016 he penned a critical opinion piece published in the Miami Herald calling the board “dormant,” which trustees loathed, and has been openly critical of the way FIU handled the March 15 bridge collapse that killed six people.

On Friday, FIU students affiliated with the conservative group Turning Point USA demonstrated support for Maidique, claiming the board’s actions were punishment for exercising free speech. An FIU Student Government senator began a petition for students to keep Maidique’s name on campus.

But committee members in favor of removing Maidique’s name say it’s solely a business decision and reject the notion that their efforts are punitive.

“I hate to say, unfortunately In today’s environment, everyone hides behind freedom of speech,” said ad hoc committee chair Michael Joseph.

At a May 23 board meeting, Joseph asked the board’s legal counsel for guidance to address, “Conduct of the president in the manner in which we continue to have disparagement of the university.”

Alvarez, the dissenting vote last meeting, blasted the committee for saying the unnaming is about money when trustees have voiced frustration with Maidique, making the timing suspicious.

“I don’t know who would believe that this has nothing to do with it when we discussed it 30 days later, we created a committee purely to rename and now we came up with a great idea,” he said. “There is nothing more important to an institution than academic freedom and the First Amendment rights. And for us to go ahead and do this, first of all we’re going to lose the case, second of all we’re going to get a host of bad publicity because there is no basis to take Mitch’s name away. None whatsoever.”

Alvarez also said his comments were not included in the August meeting minutes. Others in the committee agreed, and they were not approved. The board’s counsel, Carlos Castillo, said minutes are taken by the Board of Trustees office and reviewed by legal counsel.

“They’re not a verbatim account,” Castillo said.

Trustee Rogelio Tovar, who was absent at the last committee meeting, agreed with Alvarez. They moved to drop the pursuit of a campus rename but were defeated in a 5-2 vote.

“To now say we’re going to take his name off of the recognition they gave him. And then when I see the proposal that was sent to me, which is basically a couple patches of grass, I’ll tell you it is offensive,” Tovar said. “And I don’t know why we’re going down this road.”

In the end, the committee opted to explain to the rest of the board that their minutes need to be modified and that the committee should have another final, follow-up meeting. Joseph said the committee will decide then whether or not to pursue the unnaming “once clarity happens in the legal parameters.”

The law firm retained by Maidique, Dorta & Ortega sent letters to each trustee Friday calling the vote to change the campus’ name illegal.

“In closing, please understand that President Maidique has no desire to litigate against the Board and the school he has raised as his own child,” the letter read. “Nevertheless, if the Board pursues this misguided action, then we will fight this battle to its bitter end. This fight will not be limited to a civil court.”

Asked after the meeting about the letters sent by Maidique’s legal team, Joseph declined to comment.

“I don’t give interviews,” he said.

Castillo, the board’s counsel, confirmed that the board members had received the letters but declined further comment.

Raul Masvidal, who served on the board of regents of the state university system and was part of the committee that appointed Maidique, spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting. He said the board’s moves will cause “tremendous damage to the school in terms of raising funds in the future.”

“How are you going to convince any person or business to donate funds to FIU when you see what’s happened here?” Masvidal said.

Yandy Perera, a 29-year-old junior studying biology, told the board that the opinion overall among students is that “there are better issues to address,” including affordable tuition, on-campus parking and a safe connection to Eighth Street.

“We’re irritated that this is the focus of the Board of Trustees,” he said.

Contact Colleen Wright at 305-376-3003 and @Colleen_Wright.