Byline: Kate Howard Perry & Adam Kealoha Causey
Student leaders at Florida State College at Jacksonville had questions for their president, pointed questions they've been compiling since he offered last month to meet with them for an open forum.
It would've been Steve Wallace's second meeting that Tuesday. At the first, he secured a $1.2 million contract from the FSCJ board for leaving his job. Later that day, student government representatives from campuses across the city gathered downtown, prepared to hear directly from Wallace. They had a list of questions that only grew longer after his resignation.
What was Wallace's reason for resigning? Who is responsible for letting the college's financial aid problems happen? How could he ask the board to approve spending $1.2 million on his exit?
And why hadn't someone from the college, or Wallace himself, made any attempt to talk to students directly about these problems?
"There's a lot of internal damage," said Joshua Titherington, a student government campus president. "All we had was the news. It wasn't exactly in a positive light, so we don't see the college in a positive light."
Wallace didn't show up. The students asked members of his Cabinet instead, and they tried to address their concerns even if they sometimes didn't have all the answers.
The college is not one person, they said. We'll get past this.
"The magic of what happens here at the college is what happens in the classroom," North Campus President Barbara Darby told the students. "It's not going to skip a beat. Not one beat."
Titherington wasn't satisfied.
"Why is he not here?" Titherington said. "This was his chance to at least have some interaction with students here. Does it not matter anymore because he's stepping down?"
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Wallace's departure plan comes after months of bad news.
"I have reached a point in my career where new challenges are of interest," Wallace wrote in an email to all staff on Wednesday. "I intend to contribute as much as I can to the College's positive future over the next 20 months."
The college learned it owed $4.7 million to the U.S. Department of Education after it wrongly approved thousands of Pell Grants and federal loans for students who didn't qualify. The early childhood education program was issuing degrees to students who hadn't passed state certification tests because it didn't make clear its graduation requirements. Wallace's own spending of more then $187,000 over two years on expenses like travel, charitable donations and meals came under the microscope in a Times-Union investigation and prompted the governor to order a special investigation of Florida State College Foundation spending.
The FSCJ board voted 8-1 to approve a deal for Wallace that includes 18 months of consulting at $477,000.
For students and faculty who love the college, the problems and the president's contract have become a distraction.
"Students are doing what they can to better themselves and it just seems so egregious," said Rachelle Wadsworth, a humanities professor who serves on the Faculty Senate.
A friend on the faculty recently told Wadsworth about a student who was deciding between staying in school and buying needed books or putting gas in her car. The professors, scrambling to help her find a scholarship, couldn't help viewing her situation through the lens of Wallace's new contract.
"We try to keep the focus on the classroom," Wadsworth said. "But it's getting more and difficult."
FSCJ students historically haven't gotten too involved with campus politics, said Ed Fleming, who taught political science and history from 1968 to 2000. Because it's a commuter school, Fleming said, students often don't have the same level of interest as students on residential campuses might.
But when leadership questions rise as high as they have with Wallace, Fleming said, they're hard to miss. …