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Students React With Dismay, Confusion To UCF President's Resignation

UCF's 5th President Dale Whittaker talks with students on July 2, 2018. Whittaker announced his resignation.  Photo: Christen Kelley
UCF's 5th President Dale Whittaker talks with students on July 2, 2018. Whittaker announced his resignation. Photo: Christen Kelley

University of Central Florida president Dale Whittaker sent out an email Tuesday afternoon announcing his offer to resign over the misspending of $38 million to build Trevor Colbourn Hall. As the news spread across campus, students reacted with dismay and confusion.

UCF senior Craig Carrier said the mismanagement of university’s leadership shouldn’t tarnish the school’s reputation.

“It seems that you’re trying to kind of put down UCF, when we’ve done so many great things for the state of Florida and for this country over the past couple of years,” said Carrier.

State auditors discovered last year that $38 million used to construct the new building, Trevor Colburn Hall, came from state money that specifically was not supposed to be used for new construction.

In total, the university illegally spent or planned to spend nearly $85 million on Trevor Colbourn Hall and other projects.

UCF’s Chief Financial Officer Bill Merck who oversaw the four-year-long project resigned last year. Whittaker fired four employees who worked underneath Merk.

Chuck Greene, an attorney representing those four employees, said Whittaker did the right thing by resigning.

“I hope that UCF leadership would take a look at this and say maybe firing these people was the wrong thing to do," said Greene.

"You know, it was certainly wrong for Dale Whittaker and UCF to announce that these four people were fired for misconduct.”

UCF officials say the original Colbourn Hall, built in the 1970s, was plagued with mold, water intrusion and a failing brick façade. They originally planned to renovate Colbourn Hall, but as engineers kept studying the building, the costs to renovate became more expensive than to just build a whole new structure.

Historically. money for a new school building has come from the Public Education Capital Outlay, or PECO Fund, which is paid for by a tax on utilities.

But as the great recession hit, the fund shrank from $1.2 billion in 2008  to just $73.5 million in 2013.

And that pot of money is for construction at all public colleges and some K-12 projects. So with state money drying up, UCF officials turned to another source: leftover money for operations, that by the state’s definition was only allowed for activities like instruction, research, libraries, student services or maintenance.

The biggest backlash to the misspending has come from the state legislature.

Speaker of the House José Oliva is leading the state’s investigation into the misspending of funds.

"Today, President Whittaker took a major step towards repairing the relationship between UCF and the legislature," said Oliva in a statement.

"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. I wish President Whittaker the best in his future endeavors."

But Democratic state Rep. and UCF doctoral student Anna Eskamani says the Republican controlled house and senate should hold the state’s government to the same standards.

“I’m frustrated by what really became a circus by the Florida Legislature," said Eskamani.

"In their efforts to hold UCF accountable to the misuse of state dollars, I often would ask myself why don’t we take the same approach of transparency to other entities and even to ourselves.”

Whittaker took over from John C. Hitt who retired last year after leading the school for 26 years. Whittaker had been president for just over six months.

“It’s shocking," said student government leader Christian Padron.

"It’s really sad to see him go he’s done so much for our campus for student life. We’re a very proud happy student body and to see him leave, it’s really sad and disheartening.”

The Chair of the Board of Trustees, Robert Garvy, said he will call a special meeting to address Whittaker’s offer of resignation and the next steps for the university.

With reporting by Abe Aboraya, Brendan Byrne & Matthew Peddie