PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - When Florida Atlantic University President Mary Jane Saunders recommended the move to close the Treasure Coast campus in Port St. Lucie earlier this year, she checked the numbers and sought input from staff via email or phone calls.
A study of travel records for Saunders shows the decision to close the Treasure Coast campus wasn't based on her visits to the campus that FAU shared with Indian River State College. Saunders proposed closing the campus in May as part of the university's plan to absorb a $24 million state funding cut. The campus closed in June.
That's because Saunders hasn't actually visited the campus in more than a year.
Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers requested travel records of Saunders and several other FAU officials as part of an investigation into the college's travel expenses. While no major junkets were discovered, the investigation showed how few times the university president visited the Treasure Coast campus, both before and after deciding to close it.
About 247 students — less than 1 percent of the total FAU enrollment — listed the Treasure Coast campus in Port St. Lucie as their home campus at the time of the closing, according to FAU media relations.
Saunders spent more to travel to the State Board of Governors meetings throughout the state in 2012 — in which budgetary decisions including the closing of the campus were discussed — than she did visiting the Treasure Coast to talk to students.
"The very difficult decision to suspend operations on the Port St. Lucie campus was made as a direct result of the fact that the Legislature cut Florida Atlantic University's state funding by almost $25 million during the 2012 session. That was a reduction of unprecedented size and it put the university in the position of having to make some hard choices," said Christopher Stotz, assistant director of media relations for FAU, in an emailed response to questions from Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers.
In 2012, Saunders visited the Treasure Coast four times, but never stopped at the FAU Treasure Coast campus. Saunders does not get a car allowance or reimbursement for mileage, according to the FAU media relations office. The FAU Foundation provides her with an automobile as part of her contract.
Saunders does get reimbursed for overnight travel, airfare and meals, based on travel records.
In May, Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers requested travel records of FAU top officials for the 2011 and 2012 budget years. The college took about three months before sending the records. A request for Saunders' itemized trips to the northern campuses in August took an additional three weeks to get.
Requests starting in September to interview Saunders for this article were denied, with the college's media relations office citing Saunders' busy schedule.
Since 2010, Saunders visited the Treasure Coast campus three times, based on FAU records. In April 2011, she met with faculty, staff students and student government leaders. She also held a meeting with faculty, staff, students and the community in October 2010. She also held a similar meeting in Jupiter the same day. In August 2011, she visited the campus for the President's Community Council luncheon.
In his email, Stotz said the budget-cutting was a "broadly inclusive process" that got input from all the university's key constituencies including faculty, staff and students. A link to frequently asked questions about the budget was posted on FAU's website and two web pages were created for submission of suggestions. Input was solicited through the university's email, Stotz said. A budget forum open to everyone and video conferenced to all sites also was held, he said in the email.
"The decision to suspend operations on the Port St. Lucie campus was made because of today's economic realities," Stotz said in the email.
Saunders did not visit the campus after the announcement was made to close it.
Meanwhile, Saunders spent about $862 to attend the January Board of Governors meeting in Tallahassee. The amount includes about $541 for airfare to Tallahassee. She spent about $141 for lodging and meals when she attended the March Board of Governors meeting in Jacksonville, based on travel records.
Saunders spent almost $300 in lodging and food in June, when she attended the board's meeting in Orlando to ask for a 15 percent tuition increase and to finance a $50 million student residence facility for the Boca Raton campus.
Since 2011, Saunders has spent about $4,000 traveling throughout the state. Each visit to Tallahassee costs almost $1,000, with airfare and hotel costs driving up the price.
Stotz said in his email that FAU's commitment to the Treasure Coast, which dates back to the 1970s, has not wavered. FAU's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce has been enhanced by more than $44 million in new facilities, infrastructure improvements and research support, he said.
"Florida Atlantic University is a dedicated partner in the development
of the Treasure Coast, and we will continue to do our best to contribute to its growth and prosperity," he said in the email.
So far this year, Saunders has visited Martin County three times — in January for the Council of Chambers meeting, in April for the Jupiter Science Initiative and in May for the FAU Board of Trustees meeting. She visited Harbor Branch for the first time this year on Sept. 10 to attend the board of trustees retreat.
Trips to Treasure Coast
The following is a list of the trips to the northern campuses and the Treasure Coast Florida Atlantic University President Mary Jane Saunders took since 2011:
Jan. 13: Martin County, Council of Chambers
March 31: West Palm Beach, Pine Jog Educational Center Green Gala Fundraiser
April 2: Jupiter, Jupiter Science Initiative
May 24: Jupiter, board of trustees meeting
Sept. 10: Fort Pierce, board of trustees retreat at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute
Sept. 26: West Palm Beach, Palm Beach Post editorial board
Jan. 14: Fort Pierce, Harbor Branch Foundation Board
Feb. 2: West Palm Beach, Palm Beach legislative delegation
Feb. 11: Jupiter, Honors College faculty assembly
March 10: Fort Pierce, board of trustees at Harbor Branch
March 26: West Palm, Pine Jog Educational Center Green Gala Fundraiser
March 28: Jupiter, meeting with faculty, staff, students and classroom visits
April 14: Fort Pierce, Harbor Branch Foundation Board
April 18: Treasure Coast campus, meeting with faculty, staff, students and student government leadership
May 18: Jupiter, board of trustees meeting
Aug. 15: Jupiter, Honors College faculty assembly
Aug. 19: West Palm, Palm Beach Post editorial board
Aug. 17: Treasure Coast Campus, President's Community Council luncheon
Sept. 12: Treasure Coast, Scripps Treasure Coast editorial board
Sept. 17: Jupiter, meeting with Harry Orf, Scripps Florida vice president of operations
Sept. 27: Fort Pierce, board of trustees retreat, Harbor Branch
Sept. 29: Fort Pierce, board of trustees retreat, Harbor Branch
Oct. 18: Jupiter, fundraiser to benefit Honors College
Oct. 13: West Palm, Keynote: Palm Beach Medical Society Summit
Saunders' trips January to June
The following is a list of trips to the Board of Governors meetings Florida Atlantic University President Mary Jane Saunders took in between January and June and her expenses:
January — Tallahassee
March — Jacksonville
June — Orlando