FIU board did right thing in naming, but might face a rerun
Written by Michael Lewis on September 11, 2018
It was fitting that the student representative on the Florida International University Board of Trustees became the swing vote in properly refusing to remove former President Modesto Maidique’s name from the school’s main campus.
Jose L. Sirven III, who had voted to remove the name in an earlier committee meeting, was reported to have reversed himself last week after asking other students and finding that most thought the Maidique name should stay right where it is.
That speaks to two points.
First, the students were the adults in the room, refusing to banish the name of a 23-year president and now professor because he recently has publicly disagreed with trustees and administrators. His critiques are clearly protected academic freedom that no university ought to crush.
Second, Dr. Maidique has voiced concern that the university has grown too large and in the process less selective of students in the quest by current President Mark Rosenberg to hit a 60,000 enrollment – our concern as well. Yet it was these very students who kept the university from the colossal error of reclaiming its gift of a campus name to its outgoing president.
The trustees voted 7-6 to stop trying to strip Dr. Maidique of the honor bestowed upon him. That was clearly the proper move. Beyond the legal threats to every board member by Dr. Maidique’s attorneys, trustees must have realized that no big-money donor was waiting to name the main campus and that FIU was getting a black eye in the press far beyond Miami for even considering a forced name change.
As we wrote two weeks ago in opposing a forced name removal, the naming of the campus for Dr. Maidique, whom we respect, “never should have been done – naming sites for living persons raises a danger of what they might do later – but removing his name would see a university revoke its word… It would be different were a crime involved.”
“Drop this name change and get off of this bad press,” trustee Cesar Alvarez implored board members before their vote. So they narrowly voted to do absolutely the proper thing and forget all about the name change.
Unfortunately, they might soon be thrust right back into a name-change vote with ensuing bad press in the near future, after Friday’s announcement that the US Securities and Exchange Commission had, in the words of its press notice, charged “Miami biotech billionaire Phillip Frost” with allegedly participating in two securities fraud schemes in a federal complaint filed in district court in Manhattan that “seeks monetary and equitable relief.”
Dr. Frost is both a serial entrepreneur and serial donor to cultural projects that bear his name, including the Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum on the Modesto Maidique Campus at Florida International University. Mrs. Frost is a long-standing member of the Board of Governors of the State University System that oversees FIU and sits on the board’s Academic and Student Affairs, Strategic Planning, and Audit and Compliance committees.
Dr. Frost is innocent of the federal charges of violating antifraud, beneficial ownership disclosure and registration provisions of the federal securities laws until and unless he is convicted, and trial might take some time to sort things out.
Still, having a person for whom a university building is named facing federal securities fraud charges is far more serious than having a former president of that university for whom a campus is named criticizing board and university policies.
So how will FIU’s trustees now wander through the minefield of naming rights – particularly when the wife of the accused sits on the state board that oversees the university?
If nothing else, the naming rights concerns should cause trustees at FIU and elsewhere to consider a future policy that no donation from a living person is large enough to be worth an institution’s future by hoisting that name above a building.
When selling naming rights, how about suggesting that potential donors use the names of deceased forebears? At a minimum, include in naming rights agreements provisions based on the future reputation of the donor.
That lesson for the future has broad impact – at least two other public institutions in town also operate under the Frost name. To reiterate, he has not been found guilty of any charges at this point, but resolution of the case may take years, with years of uncertainty at public institutions about how to handle the name. Boards need to consider that serious issue of reputation now.
Meanwhile, thanks to a student’s vote reversal, Dr. Maidique’s name remains right where it belongs. It was an educated decision.