Florida Polytechnic University.
Florida Polytechnic University. | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow

There has been a shakeup of the board of trustees of Florida Polytechnic University, just as the Lakeland-based school begins its search for a new president. Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed four new politically conservative board members and reappointed board Chairman Cliff Otto.

The announcement came late Tuesday afternoon from the governor’s office. It wasn’t immediately clear who or how many on the board have been replaced. According to Florida Poly’s website, the board members as of Tuesday morning were:

Chairman Cliff Otto, Vice Chair Beth Kigel, Trustee Ajeet Kaushik, Trustee Melia Rodriguez, Trustee Mark Bostick, Trustee Lyn Stanfield, Trustee Narendra Kini, Trustee Laine Powell, Trustee David Williams, and Trustee Gary Wendt.

Some of the former Florida Polytechnic University Board of Trustees. Courtesy Florida Poly
Some of the former Florida Polytechnic University Board of Trustees. | Florida Polytechnic University

Otto, Kini and Wendt’s terms had already expired, but they continued to serve — including at the most recent board meeting on Sept. 27, according to the minutes on the university’s website.

Otto, 73, of Lakeland, is the retired chief executive officer of Saddle Creek Logistics Services. He was reappointed by DeSantis.

Florida Poly spokeswoman Lydia Guzman said Wendt was replaced and Mark Bostick was confirmed by the Senate, leaving on open seat.

According to the Florida Poly webpage, Wendt serves as chair of Deerpath Capital Management and its investment committee. He was a senior executive of GE Capital from 1975-1998 and chairman and CEO from 1989-1998. From 2000-2002, he led the restructuring of Conseco as chair and CEO.

“His term had already expired and he was not reappointed,” Guzman said.

Similarities to New College shakeup

Florida Poly was established in 2012 by the Florida Legislature under the direction of then-Florida Senator and Chair of the Budget Committee J.D. Alexander. It has become a destination for students wanting to study science, technology, engineering and math.

U.S. News & World Report ranked Florida Poly the top public school in the South in its 2024 rankings of regional (smaller) colleges, as well as the No. 2 public school in the South for value, and one of the nation’s top 20 public engineering programs without a Ph.D.

Some observers said they find the appointments troubling and likened them to what has happened at New College in Sarasota in the last year.  In January, Gov. Ron DeSantis replaced six of the 13 members on the college’s Board of Trustees, fired the college’s president and installed former Florida Department of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to head up New College.

Prior to the shakeup, New College was a liberal arts institution long known for its academic rigor and as a haven for students of all beliefs and sexual orientations. Since the changes, New College has added a sports program to boost student enrollment and migrated its academics to mirror those of Hillsdale College, a private conservative Christian college in southern Michigan.  According to CNN, New College lost 40% of its faculty over these measures.

In a social media post, state Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, characterized the new Florida Polytechnic appointments as “another erosion of higher education.”

Former Polk County School Board member Billy Townsend, a longtime observer of the happenings at Florida Poly, called it an effort to turn the university into an ultra-conservative bastion.

“With New College, they enjoyed taking away a liberal arts thing from liberal kids,” Townsend said. “This college isn’t really established. It’s an effort to make Florida Poly a troll haven for crazy right-wingers. These are not serious governance decisions.”

However, Alexander, who got to watch his dream rise out of a pasture along Interstate 4, applauded the governor’s decision.

“Honestly, when you see all these colleges erupting with support for terrorist groups like Hamas, we have concerns with how liberal and indoctrinating these faculty are,” Alexander said.  “Work on teaching reading, writing and arithmetic and not all this woke ideaology so popular in Washington. I know Gov. DeSantis. He’s a good leader for our state and I’m sure he’s made good appointments.”

Who are the new appointees?

An Axios.com article stated that Florida Poly’s new appointees “include two outspoken critics of campus diversity programs, one of whom is a fellow at the same right-leaning think tank as New College of Florida trustee Christopher Rufo.”

In addition to Otto, DeSantis appointed:

  • Dorian Abbot, 42, of Chicago. Abbot is an associate professor at the University of Chicago’s Department of Geophysical Sciences. He is a member of the American Geophysical Union and the Academic Freedom Alliance. Abbot earned a bachelor’s degree in physics and master’s and doctoral degrees in applied mathematics from Harvard University. Abbot has criticized diversity, equity and inclusion programs in an editorial in Newsweek Magazine, a YouTube video and social media posts.
  • David A. Clark, 37, of Tallahassee. Clark is a former DeSantis staffer, having served for almost a year as the governor’s deputy chief of staff from 2019 to 2020. He is currently chief executive officer of MyGovGuide, a platform that helps businesses and lobbyists navigate state government. He is also managing partner of Allegiant Strategies Group, a political consulting firm, and previously spent four years as an airborne officer in the U.S. Army. Clark earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting and business management from Flagler College and recently completed a master’s degree in business administration from Cornell University, graduating in 2023.
  • Ilya Shapiro, 46, of Falls Church, Va. Shapiro is a senior fellow and director of Constitutional Studies for the conservative Manhattan Institute think tank and author of the upcoming book “Canceling Justice: The Illiberal Takeover of Legal Education.” Previously, he was the executive director and a senior lecturer for the Georgetown University Law Center. Axios reported that Shapiro was placed on leave from his administrative role at Georgetown Law in February 2022 after criticizing President Joe Biden’s decision to appoint a Black woman to the Supreme Court. He then resigned, telling the Wall Street Journal that Georgetown “yielded to the progressive mob, abandoned free speech, and created a hostile environment.” Shapiro earned a bachelor’s degree in public and international affairs from Princeton University, a master’s degree in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a juris doctor from the University of Chicago.
  • Sidney Theis, 71, of Dallas. Theis is the owner of RDRTec Inc. He is a U.S. Air Force veteran, is on the Board of Visitors at Texas A&M University Galveston and serves on the Texas Governor’s Council. Theis earned a bachelor’s degree in physics, a master’s degree in meteorology, and a doctorate in agricultural engineering from Texas A&M University.

DeSantis’ appointments are subject to confirmation by the Florida Senate, which is expected to approve them.

Florida Poly faculty and students remain silent

The Board of Trustees oversees operations of Florida Polytechnic University, which has 1,600 students and 70 faculty members.

Axios reported that the board is made up of six appointments by the governor and five by the State University System’s Board of Governors, a body that mirrors DeSantis far right conservatism and staunch “anti-woke” policies.

The other two board members are the chair of the faculty senate and the student body president.

A student walks toward the entrance of Santiago Calatrava's Innovation, Science and Technology building on Wednesday. | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow
A student walks toward the entrance of Santiago Calatrava’s Innovation, Science and Technology building on Wednesday. | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow

Faculty Senate President Ajeet Kaushik holds a Ph.D. and is an assistant professor of chemistry in the Department of Environmental Engineering. He was hired at Florida Polytechnic University in July 2019.

Student Government Association President Melia Rodriguez is a senior at Florida Poly, studying computer science and software engineering. She has served on Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s student roundtable for change and has volunteered her time as an art teacher for children in Broward County.

Both Kaushik and Rodriguez said Wednesday that they could not speak on the topic and referred questions to the provost or to the university’s director of communications, Guzman.

A faculty advisor to the student government association declined to comment, as did three students on campus, including someone sitting at the student government desk inside the iconic Innovation, Science and Technology building designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. All students asked on campus Wednesday said they had not heard of the board change.

Florida Poly President Randy Avent announced his retirement in July and a search for his replacement is underway. He did not return a phone call or email on Wednesday.

Calls and emails to multiple board members went unanswered Wednesday.

Otto, however, spoke, saying he didn’t really know who remained on the board, only that he was reappointed.

“I don’t know if anyone was removed,” Otto said. “I don’t see anything that concerns me about the people that have been added to the board. Most of them have good tech backgrounds in STEM areas and that’s exactly what will add value for Florida Poly. Most of these board slots that are being filled have been open for awhile.  We have normal turnover — people have to move on to other things.  Nothing is unusual about this particularly.”

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Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at kimberly@lkldnow.com or 863-272-9250.

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