UCF president offers resignation amid upheaval

By Ana Ceballos, The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - University of Central Florida President Dale Whittaker offered his resignation on Tuesday amid a scandal over the university’s misuse of tens of millions of state dollars and a backlash from lawmakers.

“My reason for doing this is so the relationship between UCF and the Legislature can be renewed,” Whittaker said in a public letter. “A healthy relationship is necessary for the university to serve our more than 68,000 students in one of the fastest-growing, most diverse regions in the United States.”

House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, applauded Whittaker’s decision, which he called a “major step” toward repairing the university’s standing with the Legislature. In March, lawmakers will start the annual two-month legislative session, which will include making policy and financial decisions affecting UCF and other state universities.

“While there are several who shoulder more of the blame for the improper spending that occurred at UCF, President Whittaker knows, ultimate responsibility rests with the executive,” Oliva said in a statement.

Whittaker’s letter came just days after state Rep. Randy Fine, who oversees the higher-education budget in the House, suggested slashing the school’s state-funded building projects because of the financial scandal and even raised the possibility of shutting down the university.

Fine declined to comment Tuesday, adding that he would let Oliva’s comments stand on their own.

Robert Garvy, chairman of the UCF Board of Trustees, sent a letter Tuesday to other trustees saying he would call a special board meeting “to address this matter and the steps we need to take as the governing authority over the university.”

“In his offer to resign, Dr. Whittaker is putting the interests of our students and the university above his own,” Garvy wrote. “I am grateful for his willingness to subordinate those interests to the needs of our students, our two hundred and eighty thousand graduates, and tens of thousands of businesses, organizations, and entities that rely on UCF’s talent and significant economic impact.”

Whittaker’s decision followed a move by the Florida House Public Integrity & Ethics Committee’s to summon 14 university officials, including Whittaker, to testify before the committee about the misuse of state funds.

The committee’s investigation has focused, in part, on $38 million in operating money that was used to construct UCF’s Trevor Colbourn Hall. Those dollars were supposed to be used for activities such as instruction, research or student services.

Rep. Tom Leek, the chairman of the House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee, on Tuesday reaffirmed his commitment to “leave no stone unturned in seeking the facts and holding the right people accountable.”

“I believe President Whittaker was placed in his position at an inopportune time and much of what occurred was already underway,” Leek, R-Ormond Beach, said in a statement.

Whittaker, a former UCF provost and executive vice president, became president last year after the retirement of longtime President John Hitt.

In a letter Tuesday to the UCF Board of Trustees, Whittaker said that upon learning state dollars had been misspent, his first goal was to support an investigation into the matter.

“To accomplish the first goal I directed all our university personnel to fully support the investigation initiated by the Board of Trustees, as well as the investigation being conducted by the Florida Board of Governors and the Florida Legislature, to ensure that a full, accurate, and complete inquiry and record is made of all the circumstances surrounding TCH (Trevor Colbourn Hall) and other projects,” Whittaker wrote.

Whittaker mentioned two other goals in his letter: implementing reforms to ensure no such incident happens again and restoring the public’s trust in UCF.

“We have made great process and UCF is pointed in the right direction,” Whittaker wrote. “However, to fully implement my goal of restoring confidence in UCF by state government leaders, it has been made clear to me that one additional step is needed.”

That additional step, he said, is offering his resignation.

State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat who represents a district that includes UCF, said he views Whittaker’s decision as a way to protect students and faculty from an “overzealous Republican Legislature looking for excuses to punish public universities.”

“I hope (Whittaker’s) decision ends the Legislature’s obsession with UCF so we can move on and work together to make Florida’ state university system our nation’s best,” Smith tweeted on Tuesday.

News Service of Florida