Education

FIU’s bet on Miss Universe comes with a price

At the Oct. 2 announcement that FIU would host the Miss Universe pageant on Jan. 25, FIU athletics director Pete Garcia joined billionaire Donald Trump to discuss the plans. They were joined by, from left, Doral Vice Mayor Sandra Ruiz, Miss Universe 2013 Gabriela Isler and Doral councilwoman Ana Maria Rodriguez.
At the Oct. 2 announcement that FIU would host the Miss Universe pageant on Jan. 25, FIU athletics director Pete Garcia joined billionaire Donald Trump to discuss the plans. They were joined by, from left, Doral Vice Mayor Sandra Ruiz, Miss Universe 2013 Gabriela Isler and Doral councilwoman Ana Maria Rodriguez. El Nuevo Herald

Florida International University will take center stage next Sunday when the school hosts the Miss Universe pageant, an event beamed to a worldwide television audience.

School administrators are banking on the exposure to raise the profile of Miami’s sometimes-overlooked state university. But FIU records and emails show the chance to bathe in the glow of billionaire Donald Trump’s Jan. 25 gala has come with some unexpected costs:

▪ FIU, which announced the deal before signing a formal contract, will shell out an estimated $544,073 to host the pageant — a price tag inflated by about $400,000 in arena roof work to accommodate cameras and lights.

▪ Some students and faculty, it turns out, don’t like the image sent by the pageant, leaving FIU leaders to contend with both rising costs and internal dissent. One frustrated professor wrote to the university president, warning about the dangers of “female objectification.”

▪ And one proposal could dump fuel on that fire. To offset the unexpected expense of hosting 88 international beauty queens, athletics administrators quietly proposed dipping into funds intended for another group of women — FIU’s female student athletes.

A Nov. 4 memo breaking down pageant costs notes that a women’s softball and golf locker room building would be “likely scrapped” because of Miss Universe — a potentially touchy move FIU initially blacked out in a series of public records requests from the Miami Herald over the past two months. Less than a year ago, then-softball coach Jake Schumann had touted the planned facility as “a jewel in recruiting to allure top talent to South Florida.”

The memo was attached to an email sent by Athletics Facilities and Operations Director Justin Van Nice. The recipients included Senior Associate Athletics Director Heath Glick.

In a written statement, Pete Garcia, FIU’s athletics and entertainment director, dismissed the memo as incorrect. “We expect the project will break ground this spring,” he wrote.

In an earlier interview — before FIU released an unredacted version of the cost breakdown memo, headlined “List of Items for Loss of Use due to Miss Universe Event” — Garcia insisted that no projects would suffer because of pageant spending.

“Absolutely not,” he said.

But aside from potentially canceling athletics projects, records provided by FIU discuss only vague plans on how to pay for the pageant. In a series of interviews, administrators said most of the cost would come from athletics — including the department’s ticket sales and private fund-raising dollars.

FIU administrators insist the pageant will pay off big — and not just because of the global media exposure. They believe FIU’s arena will become more competitive in landing concerts and other high-profile events.

“We’re going to get our money back and then some,” Garcia said.

Hundreds of pages of FIU records and emails provide a different — not quite as rosy — picture. For one, the records show that some key financial details were ironed out only after FIU announced it would host the pageant.

On Oct. 1, the day before Garcia joined Trump at a press conference, FIU General Counsel M. Kristina Raattama wrote in an email that “Pete is working on agreement to bring Miss Universe to FIU.”

She continued: “Decision was made by Pete that it was okay to move ahead with announcements without signed agreement which is obviously fine and his call — just want to make sure everyone on same page [regarding] the facility changes.”

The biggest of those changes involved strengthening the arena roof to hold the weight of TV lights and cameras.

Garcia, in an interview, defended the school’s moves, saying that “once the announcement was made, we already had a verbal agreement on the major points.”

But numerous records suggest the roof upgrades ended up costing $400,000 — nearly six times more than an original estimate of $70,000.

In one Oct. 2 email, Kenneth Jessell, FIU’s chief financial officer, wrote that both he and FIU President Mark Rosenberg were told by Garcia “that the estimate was around 70K.”

Jessell suggested that FIU promise that it would only make “reasonable efforts” to upgrade the roof. If that wasn’t sufficient, Trump would have to find a Plan B, such as using floor equipment in the arena instead.

“In my view we cannot commit to providing the structural repairs needed to support the equipment since we do not have any idea of cost,” Jessell wrote.

But Miss Universe representatives objected strongly, writing in an Oct. 17 email that a Plan B “simply isn’t an option for us.” Jessell’s request to cap expenses was left out of the final contract.

In an interview, Garcia denied knowing about any $70,000 estimate, saying that perhaps Jessell had been referring to just a portion of the roof project, not the whole thing.

Garcia and FIU administrators also downplayed the $400,000 in roof improvements, saying the pageant simply sped up work they were already planning. In recent years, FIU has spent nearly $10 million on the arena — adding suites, a video scoreboard, locker rooms and a “picturesque grand entrance.”

Even without Miss Universe, FIU would have improved the roof within the next six months, Garcia said.

FIU provided additional records showing that similar roof improvements had been previously discussed. But in hundreds of pages of internal emails, none mention that the roof project was approved before Miss Universe arrived.

At the same time FIU wrestled with costs, Rosenberg had his own difficult task: calming faculty backlash over the impending pageant.

Professors complained for a variety of reasons: They weren’t notified beforehand; some thought a pageant was inappropriate for an academically serious institution; others were deeply bothered by beauty pageants, period.

FIU professor Susanne Zwingel, an expert in women’s rights and gender-equality issues, penned a four-page letter to Rosenberg expressing her disappointment.

“Mr. President, female objectification is a dangerous part of American mainstream society,” she wrote, arguing that FIU had a duty to stand up to the status quo, but was instead perpetuating it.

“A university has a responsibility toward young men as well,” Zwingel wrote. “It should help them unlearn the messages sent about women by society as a whole — that they are to be judged by their looks and that it is fine to treat them as objects for men’s fantasies.”

When FIU assistant law professor J. Janewa Osei-Tutu emailed fellow faculty about the Miss Universe discussion at a faculty senate meeting, she wrote, “Aside from discussions about parking, I have not seen a senate meeting get this heated!”

To soothe concerns, Rosenberg agreed to distance FIU from the pageant. The university has opted not to call itself a Miss Universe “sponsor,” and removed the FIU logo from the pageant website. FIU also removed its logo from aprons used in a Miss Universe/Badia Spices cooking competition — even though the event was held on campus.

For FIU administrators, the downside to addressing faculty concerns was losing some of the international spotlight the school had hoped to secure.

In an October meeting with the faculty senate, Rosenberg made the point that “global exposure such as this is hard to get,” according to a written summary of the meeting. Rosenberg noted that FIU’s international student enrollment has flattened at the undergraduate level and declined among graduate students.

“He thought those who watched the event abroad would have enough curiosity to go to FIU’s website to learn more about the institution,” the summary states.

During the telecast, FIU will still receive a couple of “10 second mentions” sprinkled throughout the show — one perk that survived the faculty uproar. And more than 100 media outlets from across the globe are expected to be at FIU.

Zwingel, the FIU professor, said “the faculty position that I have most frequently heard is that ‘Not all advertising is good advertising.’”

Staging Miss Universe at a college is unusual, but not unprecedented. The University of Hawaii hosted it in 1998. The state of Hawaii, which was in an economic slump and desperate for tourism, contributed $3.3million in taxpayer cash to land the show. This year’s Miss Universe is being heavily subsidized by the city of Doral, which kicked in $2.5 million.

Shawn McClain, Miss Universe’s vice president of marketing, argued that the pageant “sparks economic development and offers positive exposure to a massive global audience.”

“The return will be seen for years to come,” McClain wrote in a statement. “And make no mistake — we are working for Doral, for Greater Miami, and for the people of FIU. And we want to make them proud.”

In addition to the arena roof work, which was recently completed, there are other costs for FIU. A Nov. 4 university memo estimates FIU will lose more than $20,000 from canceling two previously booked events; FIU will spend $30,000 on relocating a wooden basketball floor; and FIU will spend $16,500 transporting teams to other locations for the time it can’t use the arena. The school also waived $44,000 in standard leasing fees for the pageant.

Total cost: $544,073.

Garcia downplayed those projected expenses, saying they reflected only “part of negotiations.”

Miss Universe also will bring money to the school, FIU says. The pageant will contribute $75,000 in scholarships, with an expected state match raising that to $150,000.

With an overhauled arena, FIU also hopes to attract future concerts and other events. Pageant publicity will only help to lure more shows, Garcia said. Overall, he said the pageant could make FIU “close to $400,000,” including ticket and concession sales and a recent fund-raising event — money he said would be used to upgrade other athletic facilities.

That’s a glaring need for some FIU sports programs.

The track and field program, for example, doesn’t have a track — a deficiency highlighted in 2013 when FIU hosted the annual Sun Belt Conference championships. FIU was forced to stage the event more than 20 miles away, at a city park in Miramar.

Garcia, who became athletics director in 2006, has spearheaded the Miss Universe deal. But none of the emails FIU released were written by him or the school president.

Garcia said he doesn’t send emails very often. “I’m a phone guy,” he said.

In responding to Herald records requests, FIU redacted sections of dozens of pages, citing a state law that allows a state university to withhold details that could make an arena or stadium vulnerable to attack.

But unredacted versions of the same documents, later released by FIU or obtained by the Herald, show the school mostly blacked out discussions of roof expenses and potential funding sources — considered public record under Florida’s Sunshine Law.

FIU’s senior vice president of external relations, Sandra Gonzalez-Levy, denied any effort to hide pageant costs.

“C’mon, OK, let’s be serious,” she said. “The people that do the redactions, they’re low-level paid staff. ... This is not a coverup, why would we cover up anything?”

A few weeks later, FIU spokeswoman Maydel Santana-Bravo wrote, via email, that “it looks like mistakes were made but they were not intentional.”

Related stories from Miami Herald

  Comments