Pensacola, Florida
Saturday July 20th 2019

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Saunders Prepares for “Fairy Tale” Job

By Duwayne Escobedo

Martha Saunders’ dream job was one day to become the president of the University of West Florida. She started her college career in 1984 as an adjunct at the small university tucked in the woods at the north end of Pensacola. But the dream didn’t really take hold until she took over as dean of the UWF College of Arts and Sciences in 2000 when then-President Morris Marx told her she would make a good president one day.

After leaving UWF, Saunders did serve as the first woman leader of Wisconsin-Whitewater and Southern Miss. The 68-year-old Saunders finally got her “fairy tale” job after being named the West Florida president.

She takes over for her friend, Judy Bense, after a contentious Board of Governor’s meeting that ended with her being voted as the university’s sixth president, 9-4, over former Florida Senate President Don Gaetz.

“It’s like a fairy tale,” Saunders said in a recent interview with Inweekly. “I couldn’t have imagined this. It’s a good fit for me. I will continue to build on what Judy has done.”

Bense and Saunders became good friends back in the 1980s. Saunders recalled that when she became dean, Bense asked to be named a department chair.

“I said, ‘No,’ but the next time I appointed her,” Saunders said laughing.

The roles were reversed after Saunders planned to retire in 2012 when she stepped down after five years as Southern Miss president. Bense called her after she learned Saunders and her husband, Joseph, planned to move back to Pensacola Beach.

“I really need a good provost. I’m dying over here,” Bense recalled saying. “She’s very important for the stability of our institution. People like the direction we are going in.”

Saunders joked that her supportive husband, who retired in 2005 from the telecom industry, has decided she will “never really retire.” She said he likes the “cool factor” of her title. She and her husband have six grown sons, a daughter, and 10 grandchildren.

“They ran more teachers from their jobs than low pay,” said Saunders jokingly about her children who all plan to attend her UWF inauguration, she said.

Saunders said she’s ecstatic that Bense was the trailblazer as the college’s first woman president.

“You don’t know how happy I am not to be the first woman,” Saunders said. “I was the first woman dean, provost, chancellor, and president. It’s 2016. I should not be the first.”

However, she said she does worry that the pipeline of female leadership seems to be “drying up.” In 1986, women headed only 10 percent of American universities. Today, 27 percent of women are at the helm.

Saunders has proven her leadership abilities. During her five-year tenure as president at Southern Miss, the university enjoyed record enrollment every year. The school’s fundraising rose from $3 million a year in 2007 to $20 million a year — an all-time high — in 2012. Incoming students’ ACT college entrance exam scores increased. Plus, Saunders oversaw $255 million in building projects as USM president.

“I got the first state bond for a building since the 1990s,” she said.

Her hard work there led to a friendship with former USM and Green Bay Packers star quarterback Brett Favre, who invited her to his Hall of Fame induction in August. It might also surprise you to know that Saunders is a former classmate and friend of Jimmy Buffett, who she has said in past interviews, “spreads happiness.”

Her success at Southern Miss should come as no surprise. As Whitewater’s chancellor from 2005-2007, Saunders oversaw major building projects totaling $110 million, focused on revitalizing campus communication and upgraded the college’s mission and goals.

She served as provost and vice president for academic affairs at Columbus State University from 2002-2005. There, Saunders led an effort to create Centers of Excellence to further more than 30 private-public partnerships, supported the construction of four major capital projects, and served on a capital campaign committee that raised more than its $80 million goal.

At UWF, Saunders faces the daunting challenge of meeting 10 metrics that the state uses to evaluate Florida’s higher learning institutions on a range of issues, which can ultimately affect the university’s funding. The UWF Board gave Saunders a three-year contract worth $308,750 a year and jumps to as much as $498,750 a year if she achieves contract incentives.

Besides the state goals, Saunders has her own. She wants to renovate the Student Commons building. She wants to build more bike trails and make the 1,600-acre campus a tourist destination. She would like to create a history museum that capitalizes on the discoveries of the university’s well-known archaeology program. Saunders wants to invest in the Science Technology Engineering and Math programs, such as cybersecurity.

She plans to continue the university’s involvement with the community by increasing UWF’s presence in downtown Pensacola. She fully supports the Argos football program started under Bense’s leadership. Saunders would also like to build the university’s online education program that now has about 30 percent of its curriculum available.

“It hasn’t been renovated since 1968, and it shows it,” Saunders said about the Commons area, where she regularly sits at an empty table to chat with students. “If I can get all those things done, I can head over and go sit down with Judy.”

Saunders has one more task for herself when she takes over in January. She plans to finally write a note back to Gaetz — her main challenger for the UWF presidency. Gaetz congratulated her on winning the job.

“He’s a great person,” said Saunders, whose face turns serious. “I hold him in high regard. A note to him is on my list of things to do.”