Almost four months after taking office, Martha Saunders was installed as the University of West Florida’s sixth president on Friday, as part of the school’s 50th anniversary celebration.
Dr. Saunders was named to succeed Judy Bense, by a unanimous vote of the UWF Board of Trustees last September, and confirmed by the state Board of Governors two months later.
“Today we are here to install the woman who has been chosen to lead us into our next 50 years,” said Trustee Chairman Mort O’Sullivan. “Martha, you are joining a group of extraordinary leaders who helped build and shape UWF.”
O’Sullivan was one of a host of speakers bringing best wishes to the new president. Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward told the gathering of faculty, staff and friends that the community has placed a significant amount of trust in Saunders’ leadership.
“What an exciting time; the promise that fills this room is immeasurable,” Hayward said. “And the support and belief that your faculty, your staff, and the students have in you is a credit to your leadership, and the progress you have already made as our leader at the University of West Florida.”
The day chosen for the installation ceremony – April 21 -- was no accident; 50 years ago on that day, UWF opened its doors to its first students.
After taking the podium, the new president took everyone back to the year 1967.
“The world’s first heart transplant; the first Super Bowl. Nearly half a million American troops were fighting in Vietnam,” Saunders said. “Our hair was long and our skirts were short. And when you asked us how our days was, we would tell you it was, ‘groovy.’”
Saunders kicked off her academic career at UWF in 1984 as an adjunct instructor in the Communication Arts Department. Subsequent promotions elevated her to dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. UWF, she says, has moved from a pine forest to a brain trust.
“With teaching, research, and outreach sites throughout northwest Florida and the Gulf of Mexico,” said Saunders. “It’s safe to say we have grown; it’s safe to say we have changed. It’s equally safe to say we will continue to grow and change because that is the nature of knowledge.”
And then she reached back once again to 1967 – and the vernacular of the time.
“UWF is ‘out of sight,’” Saunders said to a ripple of laughter. “The inauguration of a new president is really a celebration of the university she serves.”
Saunders also paid tribute to the five presidents before her.
“Judge Harold Crosby began it all with great vision,” said Saunders. “James Robinson brought rigor and structure to our academic programs. Morris Marx connected us to the rest of the world. John Cavanaugh organized the technological infrastructure to make us into a 21st century university. And Judy Bense crystallized the vision of a traditional campus with a focus on students. And, she brought us football.”
As with Southern Miss and Wisconsin-Whitewater, she envisions similar growth at UWF through a larger physical presence in downtown Pensacola and Fort Walton Beach; investing in programs such as global online, cybersecurity and supply chain logistics, and visiting local high schools to recruit talented students.