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Provost Martha Saunders Chosen As New UWF President


The University of West Florida has chosen its next president. 

There was a hush over the crowd at the UWF Music Hall Thursday morning as Pat Lott, General Counsel to the President read and tallied the votes from the Board of Trustees. It was obvious that everyone in the room was doing the math. Once Lott read the 9th vote for UWF Provost Martha Saunders, the room erupted in applause. 

The final vote was 9 votes for Saunders, 4 votes for State senator Don Gaetz. Neither of the other two candidates, Frank Ashley from the College Board or Mike Sherman from the University of Akron received any votes. Outgoing president Dr. Judy Bense says the election of Dr. Saunders ensures a smooth transition. "Between now and then, Martha and I will go over some things. Of course we know each other and our programs very well. Because we're a team, and have been for the past three years. But what we'll do is I'll share some inside information with her. I'll introduce her around. We'll go to the legislature together. things like that."

The process has been going on for just over 9 months. The Presidential Search Committee was formed last December and held its final meeting Thursday morning, just before the Board of Trustees meeting. Their final mission was to take a final look at the four remaining candidates and recommend at least three to the board. After about an hour, Chairman Mort O’Sullivan entertained a motion from the committee to advance all four candidates to the Board of trustees. That motion passed.

The Board of trustees meeting followed immediately at the same table. Students, faculty and the public were invited to comment before the board’s vote. And they did, with people commenting both for against Senator Gaetz, and for Dr. Saunders.

Abigail Magenson, a UWF student, also commented and delivered a petition from Argonauts Against Gaetz to the board. It had 336 signatures. And the meeting was not without a bit of drama. Mona Amadeo, the President and founder of IDGroup Branding in Pensacola went a little far overtime speaking in favor of Provost Saunders. After being asked by Bear to wrap up her comments several times he shouted her down and called for a police officer to remove her. Ms. Amadeo left the dais without an escort.

Dr. Saunders was not at the meeting, and was not available for comment. In a press release from UWF, is quoted as saying “I’m thrilled and honored beyond belief. It has been a long and arduous process, but UWF is worth it.” For her part, Dr. Judy Bense had a unique viewpoint on the process of replacing her. "It's interesting. I am enjoying it. I am looking forward to stepping down and passing the torch. So, I've had sort of a retrospective view this semester, and at the same time looking forward to something that is important in my life".

Dr. Martha Saunders take office as sixth president of the University of West Florida on January 1, 2017.

Here is the official press release from UWF:

Today, the University of West Florida Board of Trustees named Dr. Martha Saunders the sixth president of the University, effective Jan. 1, 2017. Saunders will replace UWF President Dr. Judith Bense, who is set to retire on Dec. 31, 2016. The offer of employment is contingent upon the completion of a successful background screen and subject to confirmation by the Florida Board of Governors.

“This was a fair, robust campaign,” said Board of Trustee chair Lewis Bear. “We had four great candidates. It’s a shame that we can’t put them together as a team, but the University of West Florida is the winner in our selection. We have a unanimously approved resolution, which indicates full support from the Board of Trustees and we look forward to working with President Martha Saunders. We also thank the other three candidates for their interest in the University and wish them the best.”

Saunders, a UWF faculty member and administrator from 1984 to 2002, returned to the University in 2013 and currently serves as provost and executive vice president. In this role, she functions as the University’s chief academic officer and vice president for the Division of Academic Affairs, as well as the chief operating officer with oversight over all University divisions.

Saunders will begin as President in January 2017, marking her third time leading a university. She served as Chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater from 2005 to 2007 and President at the University of Southern Mississippi from 2007 to 2012.

“I’m thrilled and honored beyond belief,” said Dr. Martha Saunders. “It has been a long and arduous process, but UWF is worth it.”

In addition to her leadership roles at Southern Mississippi and Wisconsin-Whitewater, she also served as provost and vice president for academic affairs at Columbus State University from 2002 to 2005.

Saunders began her career at UWF in 1984 as a professor in the Department of Communication Arts, where she then became coordinator of the Public Relations Program. She also served as director of the University Honors Program and associate dean of the College of Arts and Social Sciences from 1996 to 1999. In 2000, she was named dean of the UWF College of Arts and Sciences.

She received a bachelor’s degree in French from the University of Southern Mississippi, a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and a doctorate in communication theory and research from Florida State University.

To learn more about Saunders and the UWF Presidential Search, visit uwf.edu/presidentialsearch.