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Florida Atlantic University says it's standing by its deal to sell naming rights to its new football stadium to a controversial private prison company. The Boca Raton-based GEO Group faces allegations of abuse and neglect at some of its facilities, and there's a growing call on campus for the school to sever its ties.
Normally, when a school announces a multimillion-dollar donation, it's met on campus with cheers. But at FAU, a public university, the news that the Owls football team would soon be playing in GEO Stadium was met by many with incredulity and outrage. The new stadium was quickly dubbed "Owlcatraz."
But school President Mary Jane Saunders said she was "delighted" by the $6 million deal. "This gift is a true representation of The GEO Group's incredible generosity to FAU and the community it serves," she said in a press release when the deal was announced Feb. 19.
At a meeting Friday with students, faculty and community members, Saunders went even further.
"I think that the gift that was given was a gift given with love," she said.
The Halo Effect
GEO has long had connections with FAU. The company's chairman, George Zoley, has two degrees from the school and has served as chairman of the board of trustees.
Friday, some 250 people — mostly opponents of the deal — jammed into a meeting room at the stadium. Saunders tried to make her case.
"It was from an alum. It was from a local company. It's from a company that we have dealings with. And it's a company that wanted to give a philanthropic gift to an institution they love," she said.
Outside the stadium, students made it clear they don't see the deal as selfless philanthropy, chanting, "It's not worth the price."
"GEO didn't give us a gift. We gave GEO a gift that they can use to lobby the government so that they can have more privatized facilities," says FAU senior Rory Padgett. "This goes directly against what the university stands for."
William Drennan, an associate law professor at Southern Illinois University, has studied the business of selling naming rights. He says for a company like GEO Group, this deal has special appeal.
"The particular benefit of this type of advertising is the halo effect — getting your name, getting your brand associated with a prestigious university," he says.
Company Under Fire
GEO group is a successful company, but it's had a string of allegations of abuse at institutions it has run. Some of the most notable came at a juvenile prison in Mississippi, which a federal judge called "a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions."
GEO hasn't responded to requests for comment, but in earlier statements it contends the abuses mostly occurred before the company took over the juvenile prison.
Here in Florida, many are also concerned about GEO's role in operating an immigration detention center in Pompano Beach, just a few miles from the FAU campus. At Friday's meeting, Arely Baugh said she became a student at FAU because she was impressed by the school's diversity.
"And as a Mexican immigrant in this country, it really saddens me to know that my school, which I'm proud of, is tying allegiance to a group that affects my people," she says.
A 'Closed Book'?
To the students, faculty and community members, Saunders admitted that she doesn't know a lot about GEO's record operating state and federal prisons. But still, she expressed confidence in the company.
"I've been assured that the company runs very good facilities and that the company inherited some facilities that were poorly run. And some of the besmirching of the GEO name came from that," she said.
As for the naming rights deal with GEO, Saunders said, "It's a closed book." She said the university followed all its procedures in evaluating the deal and has signed a binding contract with the private prison company.
On campus, though, students and faculty members say opposition to the deal is just getting started.