TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Despite an outpouring of support for President Dale Whittaker from students, alumni and faculty members, the University of Central Florida Board of Trustees on Thursday accepted Whittaker’s offer to resign amid a scandal about the misuse of money for building projects.
Trustees expressed sadness about accepting the resignation --- and said they didn’t think Whittaker was responsible for the financial problems --- but pointed to a need for the university to patch up its relationship with lawmakers and other state leaders.
“It is time for us to heal,” trustee Alex Martins said. “It is time for us to move on. It is time for us to ensure that we can continue to produce graduates of this great university that are going to positively contribute to our state, to our economy, to our world moving forward. This university, our students, our faculty deserve that chance.”
The 7-3 vote came during an emergency meeting held two days after Whittaker offered his resignation following months of upheaval stemming from the misuse of tens of millions of dollars in state operating funds. In a letter offering to resign, Whittaker said he was taking the step “so the relationship between UCF and the Legislature can be renewed.”
But Thursday’s nearly three-hour meeting included numerous speakers who supported Whittaker --- including appearances by Whittaker’s wife and daughter. Whittaker’s wife, Mary, described the past couple of weeks as a “pure nightmare.”
“He is the right person to lead UCF,” Mary Whittaker said, her voice breaking at times. “He has demonstrated strength and courage beyond measure, while up against strong threats to the institution.”
Whittaker, who had served as UCF’s provost and executive vice president, became president July 1 after the retirement of longtime President John Hitt. But the scandal erupted in September when an audit revealed that the school improperly used $38 million in state operating funds to build the 137,000-square-foot Trevor Colbourn Hall. The money was supposed to be used for activities like instruction, research, libraries, student services or maintenance.
The disclosure led to additional scrutiny of how UCF and other state universities have used state money. State House leaders have seized on the issue, with the House Public Integrity & Ethics Committee leading a probe. Also, House Higher Education Appropriations Chairman Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, suggested last week that misuse of money could play into future decisions about funding UCF projects.
UCF trustees Chairman Robert Garvy distanced Whittaker from the financial problems, pinning them on past administrators. He said Thursday was “one of loss” for students, alumni, faculty and businesses in the state.
“Nevertheless, we face a turning point at UCF today. It’s one I personally deplore and one many join me in their dismay,” Garvy said. “Our president, Dale Whittaker, faced with a whirlwind of controversy borne by the poor decisions of a prior administration has decided to his great credit and character to subordinate his personal well-being to those of our students, faculty and the future of UCF.”
The board tapped Thad Seymour, UCF’s vice president for partnerships and chief innovation, to temporarily lead the university while it hires an interim president.
Two of the dissenting votes Thursday came from Joshua Bolona, who represents students on the Board of Trustees, and William Self, a faculty member.
“I’m concerned about the stability of this institution, I’m concerned about the next few months. …We need a strong academic leader to lead this institution both in the short term and in the long term,” Self said.