Fabiola Santiago

FIU is punishing former president for exercising critical free speech. It’s so wrong

In this 2006 file photo, Modesto “Mitch” Maidique, left, then president of Florida International University, and Steve Odland, then chairman and CEO of Office Depot, view the architectural model for the FIU College of Business Administration’s planned $45 million, five-building complex.
In this 2006 file photo, Modesto “Mitch” Maidique, left, then president of Florida International University, and Steve Odland, then chairman and CEO of Office Depot, view the architectural model for the FIU College of Business Administration’s planned $45 million, five-building complex.

Why should you care what a university campus is named?

Because, in the un-naming of Florida International University’s main campus, there are greater issues at stake.

Free speech, for instance.

We have a history of troubled practice when it comes to tolerance in this town. We’re all for First Amendment rights. We claim to defend free speech with our very lives if necessary, but when what’s said smacks against what we believe, or our own interests, we slide down the slippery slope of censorship.

Is former FIU president Modesto “Mitch” Maidique — after whom FIU’s Tamiami campus is named — being punished for exercising free speech critical of the university?

It sure looks that way — and it’s so, so wrong.

There’s wisdom in refraining from naming streets, buildings, and school campuses after living people.

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With the dead, the legacy of those bestowed the honor usually doesn’t change, unless of course victims of criminal behavior come out of the closet, postmortem, to paint a different picture of the honoree.

Despite the known pitfalls of the practice, honorary naming happens all the time — and in 2009 FIU showed its gratitude to departing president Maidique by naming its sprawling main campus after him.

At the time, Maidique was hailed as a maverick who elevated FIU’s status, not only academically but by building an architecturally striking campus worthy of a major-league school.

This is how current FIU President Mark Rosenberg — once chancellor of the state university system and FIU provost for seven years under Maidique — described Maidique to me: “He came in, he had a vision, he pursued the vision, he was persistent, determined. Vision is the art of seeing the impossible. Mitch saw the impossible and made it the inevitable. That is leadership.”

But now Rosenberg, members of his administration, some faculty and most members of the board of trustees want to take away the honor.

Why?

The official faculty position is that the naming should have never been done to begin with. It wasn’t a popular move with them, but as with so many other issues, they weren’t consulted. They’re happy to see it go.

But after interviewing several of the players close to the naming issue, one fact rises above all others:

Maidique, 78 and a professor in the Honors College, has made a lot of people at FIU angry with his public opinions critical of the governance of the school.

He’s chimed in on issues from FIU’s growth rate to the deadly collapse of the pedestrian bridge on Southwest Eighth Street in March. This, on top of the fact that, even while he was being admired and respected, Maidique wasn’t exactly a likeable character. Even his fans used to rant about his oversized ego. His support for Donald Trump, the presidential candidate and now the president, has made him all the less popular.

But it’s his criticism of the school that has put the name change on the trustees’ agenda.

In a 2016 op-ed published in the Miami Herald, Maidique wrote that the university was growing the student body by lowering standards to bring in students that couldn’t graduate, a volume-over-quality argument. He called the board of trustees “dormant” and the Florida Legislature “complacent.”

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“When he writes that article, there was going to be a board meeting, and a senior member [of the administration] calls me and says, ‘Boy, people are really upset at Mitch. They are talking about taking his name off the university,’ ” a board member told me Tuesday. “That’s the first thing I ever hear about this. That’s the fruit of the poisonous tree.”

Maidique’s criticism, he argues and I agree, is speech protected by the First Amendment.

“I disagree with everything Mitch said, but that’s what a democracy is,” the board member added.

For a while, the furor died down and so did the name issue.

But after the bridge collapse — when questions of accountability and responsibility immediately came to light — Maidique happily answered media calls for comment when President Rosenberg only issued carefully worded statements. Maidique put on the hat of “MIT-trained engineer” and said that allowing traffic to flow underneath the bridge at a testing stage in construction was a bad call.

“It is the worst day in our history,” he told CBS4.

He also noted that, under his leadership, there had been “$1 billion worth of buildings and dormitories constructed at FIU and we never had anything like this.”

I can understand why whatever collegiality existed between Maidique and Rosenberg during the transition of power is over. I can understand why some feel he is “undermining” the reputation of the university he helped build.

But un-naming the campus is punishing Maidique for exercising free speech — and if anyone should know this, it’s a university campus, and certainly its board of trustees.

What message are they sending to students and faculty?

Popular speech rarely needs protection. Unfriendly, unpopular speech does.

“When the bridge fell no one on the board nor the president were willing to talk, so the press called me and I spoke,” Maidique told me. “I never pointed the finger at FIU. The president said, ‘I don’t know, I’m not an engineer,’ and I thought I could bring some light to a system that failed because of several reasons.

“That irked the hell out of them, so they got on this kick again.”

Rosenberg said through a spokeswoman that he couldn’t speak to me Tuesday. But he sent this statement: “It’s important to note that the discussion regarding the campus naming originated with members of the Board of Trustees and it remains a board issue.”

Claudia Puig, who chairs the board of trustees, sent this: “The board is taking steps to align FIU with other higher education institutions, as it relates to naming practices. We are researching other ways to honor President Emeritus Maidique.”

I’m all for progress, but I don’t buy this argument. If Maidique hadn’t fallen out of favor, they’d be discussing a way to keep the name and still modernize their procedures.

Taking back naming rights is usually reserved for a bad actor, someone who has committed a crime or molested women a la Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby. But speaking out of turn and being politically incorrect, as bothersome as it may be, is hardly cause.

If anything, FIU has done itself harm by turning Maidique’s criticism — only one opinion, after all — into a bigger newsworthy issue.

By launching proceedings to take his name away from the campus he built, they’ve only invited new criticism — and serious questions about the university’s commitment to free speech.

Follow Santiago on Twitter, @fabiolasantiago

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