Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Politics

State Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater seeking Florida Atlantic University's presidency

Florida's Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater said Saturday that he applied to become Florida Atlantic University's next president, opening the door for an election-year shuffle for the highly-coveted Cabinet seat he holds.

Atwater, 55, a Republican from North Palm Beach, said in an email to top staff early Saturday that he had been approached by the presidential search committee seeking to fill the post vacated in May by Mary Jane Saunders.

If selected, Atwater would relinquish what is considered a safe seat on the Florida Cabinet as the state's chief financial manager, and create the only open seat on the three-member panel this election season.

Atwater was elected CFO in 2010, after serving two years as Senate president and 10 years in the state Legislature. He was expected to seek re-election and face little challenge from Florida Democrats, who have struggled to recruit a well-known challenger. Atwater has also been frequently mentioned as a candidate for governor in 2018.

In his email to senior staff, Atwater said that he "was approached by Florida Atlantic University (FAU) regarding the search for their next president. After much thought and discussion with my family, I have decided to place my name into consideration for this position."

FAU officials declined to comment.

Saunders stepped down as head of the Boca Raton-based school following a series of embarrassing incidents.

FAU professor James Tracy had espoused conspiracy theories about the Sandy Hook, Conn., elementary school shooting rampage and the Boston Marathon bombing, saying both tragedies were staged. Another professor, Deandre Poole, was criticized for a classroom exercise on symbolism termed the "Jesus Stomp." In that instance, students were asked to write "Jesus" on a piece of paper and then step on it.

Then there was the controversy that prompted national headlines over a plan to name the 30,000-seat football stadium after the GEO Group, the nation's second-largest private prison operator. GEO's promised $6 million donation triggered student protests and the stadium nickname Owlcatraz before the idea was scrapped.

Saunders remains at FAU a professor in the university's Charles E. Schmidt College of Science.

In October, FAU was in the headlines again when football coach Carl Pelini and defensive coordinator Pete Rekstis resigned after Athletic Director Pat Chun confronted them with accusations of what he called "illegal drug use." The Owls finished the season with a 6-6 record.

Atwater's links to the school include having three children attend or graduate from FAU, and representing the school's three campuses when he served in the Legislature from 2000 to 2010.

Atwater, a former banker and University of Florida graduate, spent much of his legislative career focused on insurance and banking issues, and was not known for his work on education issues.

In his email to staff, Atwater said he "led the efforts to establish a standalone medical school at the university" and that he holds "a unique and special affinity for FAU."

FAU has an enrollment of nearly 25,000 as well as a history of politicians serving as president.

Former Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan preceded Saunders as president. Brogan also had been elected state education commissioner and later was named Florida university chancellor.

FAU's 15-member search committee is expected to meet Monday to come up with a list of eight to 10 finalists and make its decision by Jan. 17. The list of candidates include 48 people who are currently employed in higher education, including the deans of Purdue University, the College of Charleston and the former president of Furman University.

If Atwater is selected, Gov. Rick Scott could appoint an interim CFO before voters choose a replacement in November.

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau reporter Kathleen McGrory contributed to this report.

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