Funny business with the Board of Trustees

Blake Middleton

The Board of Trustees retreat had members laughing throughout the meeting creating funny tone.  Photo by Blake Middleton
The Board of Trustees retreat had members laughing throughout the meeting creating a funny tone.
Photo by Blake Middleton

I didn’t walk into the Herbert University Center for the Board of Trustees retreat on Sept. 9 expecting to laugh, but I did. A lot. President John Delaney kept cracking jokes at other board members, and others made sarcastic personal jabs at each other as well. The person holding the mic was occasionally interrupted in the fashion of a schoolyard name-calling.

One of the reasons they were here was to take part in a group exercise. Each board member filled out a 32-question survey to find out what their top priorities for the university were. They were then arranged into five different groups based on their similarity with each other. One board member labeled group E before they even had a chance to label themselves, “Hardcore corporate group,” he shouted.

The separate groups sat around tables in the back and prepared to present their common set of priorities and overall goals for the university. What took place when they started presenting was part silly and part serious. Some of the board members joined in with slight disdain and others with an almost corny amount of enthusiasm.

Delaney set the tone for the presentations with an opening remark, “I’m amused to find out who I agree with and who I am completely opposite of, [there’s] some nice people I’m opposite of, and I agree with some criminals, but whatever.” The presentations went as follows:

President Delaney converses with Group A.
President Delaney talks with Group A.
Photo by Blake Middleton

Group A: A strange bunch of commonalities

Members: Rachelle Gottlieb, vice president of Human Resources; Joy Korman, vice chair of the Board of Trustees; Lynn Pappas, board member, shareholder with Gunster, Yoakley & Stewart, P.A. law firm; Sharon Wamble-King, board member

“If we could start with perspective A, coming up here as a group,” Matthew Militello, Ph.D, one of the facilitators of the discussion said.

Nobody stood up. “As a group,” Militello repeated. “Perspective A.” They slowly made their way to the front.

He told them to talk about any commonalities in the group.

“Well, we’re all female, in case you hadn’t noticed,” Pappas said laughing, then added, “and beautiful.”

“We found that we all have higher education degrees; we all were career women; we all came from outside of the state of Florida; we all grew up in urban environments; we all grew up in religious backgrounds of different faiths; we all grew up with very strong paternal–and I’m emphasizing very, it was an interesting conversation–very strong paternal focus on education and a job; and activist families,” Pappas said. “A strange bunch of commonalities.”

Pappas said their top priorities were to achieve status as a national comprehensive university, improve retention and graduation, recruit and retain top quality staff and faculty, prepare students for competitive environments in local national and global settings, align curriculum with north Florida, and create a strong student life experience.

She said they didn’t have a focus on sports or research, and less emphasis on specific access than general reputation and quality identifiers.

After they were finished presenting, Fred Franklin Jr., board member, managing director of Rogers Towers, spoke up and said: “Number 27 is prepare students to be informed, active contributing citizens to their communities, our country and our world. They rated that as a minus four, which is the lowest, and I’m just curious, who are you people?” The board started laughing.

One group A member spoke up, “Because I would say, from our conversation, if we did all the other things we stood out to do, we don’t need to put that as the top priority, it’ll happen by itself.”

A board member responded, “Spoken like a true lawyer.”

Members of Group B talk during the retreat.   Photo by Blake Middleton
Members of Group B talk during the retreat. 
Photo by Blake Middleton

Group B: Vice Presidents

Members: Sharon Ashton, vice president of Public Relations; Earle Traynham, Ph.D, vice president of Academic Affairs; Tom Serwatka, Ph.D, vice president Chief of Staff; Josh Merchant, vice president of Development and Alumni Affairs; Mauricio Gonzalez, Ph.D, vice president of Student and International Affairs; and Janet Owen, vice president of Governmental Affairs

“The first obvious characteristic is that we’re all vice presidents at the university,” Serwatka said. “That would seem like, maybe that’s groupthink or something. If you sat at the executive table, you would not think … that’s groupthink, because we have various opinions, and we hold them strongly, and we differ strongly. I can tell you who’s right and who’s wrong within the group, but I won’t.”

“You all argue like hell all the time,” a board member said.

A group B member responded, “Yeah, well, Shari’s not up here.”

Serwatka continued, “Some of us have a globalization, and international focus, some of us have a focus in the terms of the reputation we’re sending out and the way the world views us, some of us have a focus in terms of the money and the resources we can attract if we follow our plan.”

Serwatka said, “We are not here just to serve our students or our faculty or staff; we’re here to serve this community.” He said the group’s top priority is for the university to achieve a status of national comprehensive university. He said the local community needs that kind of university in order for it to achieve its goals.

“There are some cautions that we have to take while representing that focus,” he said. “One of them, my colleagues said: ‘to guard against false gods.’”

“Our national reputation cannot be solely judged based on U.S. News and World Report rankings,” he said. “As we’re seeking that goal, we cannot leave behind minority concerns, diversity concerns and access concerns.”

“One of the metrics that we would say, would judge whether we have achieved that status, is how good are we now at recruiting from out of state and from other regions, because that would say, ‘the name is out, and people are coming.’”

He said the group also wants to improve student profile, increase the size of the student body and improve quality faculty and their pay.

After the group finished presenting, Delaney said, jokingly, “We now have six new searches that we can start, starting tomorrow.” Most of the board members laughed.

Militello said Shuman also resembles this group, and could have very easily been placed in it.

A board member joked, “She’s a wannabe!”

Then Shuman said, “I never would have said not to chase the U.S. News and World Reports.” More laughed.

But it sparked a serious response from Serwatka, “We just don’t want that to be a false God. It’s not that they don’t have metrics that we’re concerned about, but we don’t know that the ranking system is that pure, for a number of different reasons. It’s a flawed ranking system.”

Delaney interrupted, “Better quit while you’re ahead Dr. Serwatka.”

“I think we can call this ‘Pragmatism Trumps Principles,’” another board member said, receiving loud belly laughs from a few other board members.

Serwatka started speaking again, and another board member shouted jokingly, “Get that microphone from him.”

But he continued, “Our [group] name was: ‘It’s Just Right.’”

Group C got creative and wrote a haiku as part of their presentation.
Group C got creative and wrote a haiku as part of their presentation.
Photo by Blake Middleton

Group C: Mission Statement Focused

Members: Pamela Chally, Ph.D, dean of Brooks College of Health; Bruce Taylor III, Ph.D, founder of Taylor Engineering, Inc.; Kathy Robinson, Ph.D, RN, CCNS, associate professor of nursing; Ajay Samant, Ph.D, dean and professor of finance, Coggin College of Business; Marsha Lupi, Ed.D, interim dean and associate professor, College of Education and Human Services; Fred Franklin Jr., board member, managing director of Rogers Towers; John Kanter, Ph.D, assistant vice president of research and dean of Graduate School; Gordon Rakita, Ph.D, board member, associate professor of anthropology; and William “Chip” Klostermeyer, Ph.D, board member, professor of computer science

Klostermeyer grabbed a mic, and said, “They suggested I write a haiku to describe our philosophy.” Then recited:

Students and facul-
ty, engaged, working for a
better tomorrow

A few board members gave a little golf clap.

Rikita said, “I’m going to be a faculty member, and I’m going to use the podium as my security blanket. I’m going to read something to you, and then I’ll tell you how we came upon this little bit of text.”

Rikita read: “The University of North Florida fosters the intellectual and cultural growth and civic awareness of its students in preparing them to make significant contributions to their communities in the region, and beyond. At UNF students and faculty engage together and individually in the discovery and application of knowledge. UNF faculty and staff maintain an unreserved commitment to students in success within a diverse, supportive campus culture.”

He paused, then said, “Does anyone know what that is? That’s our mission statement.” The board was quiet this time. “We’re a mission statement focused group, and we think this encapsulates what we do.” A long, quiet pause, then a short, “That’s it.”

Another member of the group added: “I think in a nutshell our group felt like we had drunk the UNF Kool-Aid. I mean, we read the mission statement, and we thought ‘wow, that really summarizes where our group was coming from.’ So please don’t change your mission statement for a couple more years.”

Another group member added sarcastically, “At least until we all retire.”

Group D: Cold and Analytical

Members: Joseph Turner, board member, student body president; Shari Shuman, vice president of Administration and Finance; Mark Tumeo, Ph.D, dean of the College of Computing, Engineering and Construction; Karen Stone, vice president and General Counsel; Jeff Coker, Ph.D, dean of Undergraduate Studies

Tumeo spoke for the group, “The top goals that we saw as the most important was achieving status as a national comprehensive university, because we saw that as an overarching goal, and the main thing that we want to do, in doing that, is prepare students to be informed, active, contributing citizens to their communities, our country and our world.”

Tumeo said the group also wanted to improve retention and graduation rates, align the curriculum and research to meet northeast Florida and regional needs, and prepare graduates to be competitive in our local, national, and global economy. He said the approach could be perceived as cold and analytical.

“There’s an overarching fear that somehow this threatens shared governance because when you prioritize something; it implies winners and losers, and that makes people uncomfortable,” he said.

Amongst other ideas, Group E was focused on student outcomes.
Amongst other ideas Group E was focused on student outcomes.
Photo by Blake Middleton

Group E: Hardcore Corporate Group

Members: Radford Lovett II, board member, co-founder of Lovett Miller & Co.; Myron Pincomb, board member, founder and CEO of the Pincomb Group.; Oscar Munoz, board member, executive vice president and chief operating officer of CSX; Edythe Abdullah, Ph.D, special advisor to the president; Elizabeth Curry, dean of the library; Marshall Criser, Chancellor of the State University System of Florida (not a board of trustees member)

Curry spoke for the group: “This group [is] made up of four very successful businessmen, and one defector, Chip, who left us for another group, and two educators who have only been here for a year or less. So I thought that was very interesting that we ended up together.”

“[We’re] very bottom line oriented, and measurable outcome focused,” Curry said.

She said the group is focused on student success and outcomes; regional, economic, and workforce development, using technology to increase access to make UNF more globally focused, retention and grad rates, aligning curriculum to regional needs and high wage/high skill employment within the region.

She said research wasn’t high on the list, national status wasn’t high on the list, and neither was student profile.

“This [group] was by far on it’s own,” Chris Janson, Ph.D, another facilitator of the discussion said. “It really didn’t have any association with the other four factors at all.”

After all the groups presented Janson summed it all up. “There’s a rich diversity of perspective,” he said. “In certain ways they are rooted in some fundamental core values, and it is a beautiful thing to see, because you have a big group here.”

“It builds a common vocabulary,” he said. “So now you have a perspective of 32 different priorities that were really unearthed and surfaced through your own group here. You get a chance to see the rich diversity of shared perspectives.”

“I think it also allows us to see those perspectives not through our own lens, but interpreted directly through those people that hold those perspectives,” he said. “I think sometimes, in the busyness of our lives, that can be a challenge.”

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