FAU's Stadium Naming Deal Turns Into PR Disaster
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
For Florida Atlantic University, a recent decision to sell the naming rights of its new football stadium to the GEO Group turned from being a cash windfall to a PR disaster. When FAU's president announced the deal, she called GEO - a private prison corporation - a wonderful company. Not everyone agreed. Students troubled by allegations of abuse at some facilities held protests and now, the deal has been called off. From Miami, NPR's Greg Allen reports.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: On Florida Atlantic University's campus in Boca Raton, student protests recently came back into style.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT PROTESTERS: (Chanting) It's not worth the price. It's not worth the price...
ALLEN: The protests began in February, shortly after FAU announced the deal. The university said its Owls football team would soon be playing in GEO Stadium. In return, the company agreed to make what it called a gift of $6 million to support the athletic program. Critics quickly dubbed the new stadium Owlcatraz.
GEO is a company with long ties to the university. The company's chairman is an FAU graduate and former chair of the school's board of trustees. While a successful company, GEO has been dogged by charges of abuse at its institutions. In meetings with students, FAU President Mary Jane Saunders conceded she didn't know that much about the company's record before signing the deal. Yesterday, after the deal was called off, she maintained there's little she should have done differently.
MARY JANE SAUNDERS: No, I think we just got caught up in a national discussion about the role of government, the role of privatization of government entities. And I think that's just what happened with this gift.
ALLEN: Saunders doesn't believe the university did anything wrong is selling its stadium's naming rights to GEO. Other on campus disagree. Gail Burnaford is a professor of education who helped convince the faculty senate to approve a resolution condemning the deal. She said the faculty had a number of concerns.
GAIL BURNAFORD: The first was the nature of the GEO prison group - its history, and the role that private prison companies, particularly his one, have had in human rights abuses that have been documented.
ALLEN: In a letter to FAU on Monday, GEO Chairman George Zoley said he was calling off the deal, saying it had, quote, "evolved into an ongoing distraction to both our organizations."
No one was happier about the news than Stop Owlcatraz, a group of students that for weeks kept up the pressure on the university. One member, Anole Halper, says earlier on Monday, April 1st, students held a special April Fool's Day protest congratulating the university for calling off the deal.
ANOLE HALPER: When we heard the news later in the day that the deal actually was off, we thought it was because of the fake press releases we had sent out. So everyone - all of us were skeptical; wait, is this an April Fool's joke? Is this our own PR coming back to us?
ALLEN: After the student group started its protests, some 70,000 people signed online petitions demanding FAU cancel the deal. And this week, some 60 civil rights and immigrant groups called on the school to sever its ties with GEO. Education pProfessor Gail Burnaford says she's proud of how FAU students led the way through peaceful and patient protest. FAU president Saunders doesn't quite see it that way.
SAUNDERS: Well, let's remember, we were dealing with a core group of about 20 students. And there are also 29,980 students at this university that were going about their normal business.
ALLEN: Fresh from this incident, Saunders now has another controversy on her hands. It involves a communications class in which students were instructed to step on a piece of paper with the word "Jesus" on it. A student complained. It was picked up by the national media and now, the instructor is on leave after receiving death threats. Not exactly the stories you want, if you're the president of an up-and-coming university.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.