It seems it’s back to business as usual — almost — for Temple Terrace Mayor Mel Jurado, who weathered a stormy City Council meeting Oct. 16 over discrepancies in her academic claims. Most residents addressing the council that night voiced support for the mayor, but others asked her to resign.
They were reacting to a Tampa Bay Times report Oct. 7 that Jurado’s Ph.D. degree in industrial psychology was awarded by an unaccredited diploma mill that had been shut down after an FBI raid in 1996. Jurado also claimed on at least two applications to government agencies that, in addition to her master’s degree in psychology, she earned a master’s degree in sports medicine from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The registrar’s office there reported it has no record of her being awarded the sports medicine master’s degree.
Jurado made no comment at that meeting or in any public forum since, though she did remove the reference to the Ph.D. from her bio on the Temple Terrace web site.
This week’s City Council meeting, the first of 2019, proceeded without incident, but the subject has come up three times in council meetings since Oct. 16. Retired University of South Florida Professor Susan Greenbaum, who said then she thought Jurado should resign, returned Nov. 5 to say she was still waiting for the mayor to address the issue.
Then at the Dec. 4 meeting, Denny Kunak, speaking in support of the mayor, suggested that what’s important is what people do with what they’ve learned, not the degrees themselves. “There’s a difference between degrees, which are merely a piece of paper, and work that follows the degrees, which is the actual recognition of who you are, what you know and what you can do for everybody.’’
The subject came up again at the Dec. 18 meeting, when several people complained about the mayor’s treatment of Council Member Cheri Donohue. Jurado had removed Donohue as the city’s representative to the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit board during the previous meeting. When Donohue complained, Jurado suggested Donohue was not well-versed on some of the issues before that board.
Donohue’s husband, Mike Donohue, told the council he had overheard a prominent citizen at a candidates’ forum say he thought Donohue had “outed the mayor, had been the one to call the paper.’’ He said Cheri Donohue called that person and said, “I would never do that. I would never embarrass the city that way.’’
Former Mayor Joe Affronti then stepped up and identified himself as the person Mike Donohue referred to. He said he figured that Donohue had tipped off the media about the mayor because Donohue once asked City Manager Charles Stephenson, a University of Florida graduate, to provide proof of his degree.
Meanwhile, the mayor’s resume is the subject of criticism on the Re-Imagine Temple Terrace Facebook page, a forum where Temple Terrace residents discuss a number of city issues.
By her silence on the issue, Mayor Jurado is going against standard advice from public relations professionals for people facing what the experts call a “reputational crisis.’’ Kateryna Komarova, who teaches public relations at the University of South Florida, said when confronted with revelations of misdeeds or errors, a person or company should acknowledge the issue “within an hour’’ and quickly follow up to answer the public’s concerns.
In cases of “a high level of reputational threat, your strategy should include, number one, an apology.’’ The subject of the controversy should take full responsibility and ask for forgiveness. “If you do it in a convincing enough manner, people tend to be forgiven,’’ Komarova said.
In an interview with the Times Sept. 13, Jurado said she did not know that LaSalle University in Louisiana, which had directed prospective students to a fake accreditation agency, was an unaccredited school. She said she first heard about the school’s status when a Times reporter told her in September. She insisted in the interview that she did the work to earn a Ph.D., and she allowed reporters to leaf through the 460-plus page dissertation she presented as proof.
She did not, however, respond to multiple requests to see evidence of the sports medicine degree.
On the afternoon of the Oct. 16 meeting, she had the reference to her Ph.D. struck from her city bio, which originally stated that she earned the degree from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She still claims the Ph.D. on her Linked In page, though she did correct the reference to the defunct LaSalle University in Louisiana. It had earlier indicated she earned the doctorate from La Salle University, the well-regarded Catholic institution in Philadelphia. She also claims the second master’s degree on Linked In.
Florida Statute 817.567 prohibits a person from putting “Dr.’’ before their name or “Ph.D.’’ after their name if the degree is from an unaccredited university. Violations are punishable by up to a year in jail.
A Republican candidate for the Florida House last fall was given 90 days of probation after she falsely claimed she had graduated from Miami University of Ohio. Melissa Howard later dropped out of the race.
She was charged with a misdemeanor after an investigation by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office.
A spokeswoman for the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office said no law enforcement agency has referred a case against Jurado for prosecution.
Contact Philip Morgan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3435.