The debate over Florida Atlantic University's decision to name a football stadium after a notorious private prison company has descended into deception.
Today, student activists confronted FAU President Mary Jane Saunders at a public forum to denounce the fact that the school is taking $6 million from the GEO Group in exchange for stadium naming rights. This company has a shameful record of human rights violations, abuse, and neglect at its facilities. Unfortunately, Saunders was less than forthright in dealing with her critics.
The first problem was dishonesty over the forum rules. On Monday, students had engaged in a sit-in at Saunders's office and agreed to leave only after Saunders promised there would be an open public dialogue on the issue, with an open Q&A and a mutually-approved moderator. There was also the strong implication that community members (i.e. non-students) would be able to ask questions. It's all on videotape. Yet the administration quickly reneged on these terms. It named the moderator itself, declared that community members couldn't ask questions, and made a list of the students who could ask questions. Indeed, according to student organizer Anole Halper, with whom I spoke today after the event, students tried to present Saunders with a petition that had amassed nearly 10,000 signatures, yet she refused to take it (though the moderator eventually relented and took it himself). Does this sound like an administration comfortable with an open dialogue?
FAU has also been deceitful about the nature of its arrangement with the GEO Group, insisting that the $6 million it received was just a charitable gift, not a corporate sponsorship. This claim is absurd on its face: a corporation doesn't hand over $6 million to get nothing in return. And in this case we know the assertion is false because there's a signed agreement in which naming rights are given in return for the "donation." If this were a mere gift, GEO wouldn't need its name on the stadium in the first place.
FAU's dissembling adds to the falsehoods that the GEO Group has already been peddling. Immediately after news of the naming deal broke, the company apparently tried to scrub its Wikipedia page of all information that portrayed it in a negative light.
Then, in an attempt to bat away the bad press it was receiving, the GEO Group claimed that a number of the accusations being leveled against it were unfair because the abuse at one of its youth facilities in Mississippi had actually occurred under another company's watch:
A number of media reports cite problems at a facility formerly operated by GEO in Mississippi, the Walnut Grove Correctional Facility, quoting a report by the Department of Justice issued in November 2010. What those media reports fail to disclose is that our company only assumed management of the facility in late August 2010, and the findings related to problems that preceded GEO's involvement at the facility, when it was operated by different private operator.
Actually, that's not true. As the ACLU has pointed out, the Department of Justice report in question was not issued until March 2012, and its investigation occurred in 2011 while GEO was in charge. The report accused GEO of "systematic, egregious, and dangerous practices exacerbated by a lack of accountability and controls," contending that the sexual misconduct there (which included staff-on-youth abuse) was "among the worst that we have seen in any facility anywhere in the nation." So there's that.
Together, the GEO Group and Saunders have displayed a pattern of deception. These aren't isolated incidents. GEO and FAU seem to think that genuine transparency would be bad publicity, and the best strategy to save their naming deal is to lie about it and shut out the community. Not that this is entirely surprising: these are the folks who thought it was totally cool to pair a public university with a human-rights-violating private prison. Yet there does come a point when being aboveboard is really the best way to stop getting raked over the coals.
Halper says there was a two-minute applause break today after a student told Saunders that the GEO Group deal is making Florida Atlantic University an embarrassment for alumni. Let's hope Saunders and FAU's board of trustees heed that warning and listen to their students and the broader community instead of trying to deceive them.