UWF’s New President: Dr. Martha Saunders

Name: Dr. Martha Saunders

Education: Bachelor in French, Master in Journalism, Doctorate in Communication Theory

Hometown: Hattiesburg, Mississippi

Dr. Martha Saunders officially became the sixth president of the University of West Florida Jan. 1, 2017 following the eight-year term of Dr. Judy Bense. She sees UWF as her home, and her loyalty to the university is evident in her plans to strengthen the university for its students and the community.

Even though she only just officially became president in January, Saunders has some clear goals for UWF. Her focus is set on the performance based metrics, attending to facility's needs and improving food quality for students.

She’ll also be spending time with Argonauts in the Commons every Monday and plans to visit each academic department so she can learn about and address any concerns. She says it will help her stay up to date on campus life and curriculum.

Before the presidential search, Saunders was the university provost, which made her the "insider" candidate. It’s helped make the transition into the presidency a smooth one.

And though that transition has been calm, the selection process in the fall was anything but.

Near the end of the presidential search, students and members of the university community questioned the qualifications of some of the candidates, causing tensions to rise.

Saunders wasn’t as concerned with who would be president as she was with how they would affect the momentum of the university.

“We are really hitting our stride as a university, we have a lot of big things started,” she says. “At the time it had less to do with who that person was and more to do with anybody from the outside is going to slow us down, even the most seasoned president because they’re new.”

Saunders is the opposite of new. She worked as faculty and an administrator from 1984 to 2002. She returned to UWF in 2013 to serve as its provost. She also has two university presidencies under her cap, as well, the first as the chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and the second as president of the University of Southern Mississippi.

Saunders feels especially hopeful about continuing work with the UWF Historic Trust and Football. But she wasn’t always so sure about the latter. Saunders admits she wasn't too sure about the new initiative by former UWF President Bense, but sees the advantages of having a football team now.

“I ended up happier than I thought I would [about UWF football] because it did catch so much positive attention.” Saunders said. “Not just football but athletics in general is a window into the university...I think that it was a courageous decision on the part of President Bense.”

Something else Saunders wants to address are the Southside Residence Halls.

“We do have prices on rehabbing them, and we’re talking with the greek organizations to see if that price point would beckon them to come back. I’ve got my eye on two or three of them that I really want to do something for the students.”

With every new job comes pros and cons. Saunders touched on her favorite part of being UWF’s president.

“Always the best part of any job for me is the strategy, the planning and the figuring out...it’s like a puzzle. How do I make all this fit?”

As for the worst part, she jokes that her tight, back-to-back schedule often provokes a few tears. She doesn’t get to hang out as much as she used to and often deals in very large crowds when she really prefers one-on-one interactions.

However, she says she is supremely happy with her position and loves the work through and through.

And this presidency means even more to Saunders than just the opportunity to benefit the university. She feels there’s significance in her being the second female UWF president immediately following the first.

“I am so happy this is the first time in my whole career I have not been the first woman in leadership,” Saunders said. “ I was the first woman dean then first woman provost, first woman chancellor. It’s 2017, it’s about time we stop having to say that.”

As for challenges she’s faced as a woman, she says, “If I have been treated differently, it didn’t make that much of a difference. It didn’t stop me.”

Most of these challenges she sets aside as men who weren’t used to talking to women in leadership. They simply came from another generation.

When asked if she considered herself to be a feminist, Saunders responded with a confident, “I do.” She reflected on some struggles women faced in the past when she was a young woman.

“I remember when I married, a woman could not have a credit card. You had to have your husband’s signature,” she said. “When you bought a house, it was put in your husband's name. We were on the advanced guard of the women’s movement, and I believed in it. I thought we needed equal opportunities. I thought that women needed to be in the workplace if they wanted to be. And, I stayed home with my children for 12 years and watched the rest of the world progress, but that was my choice, and I had it.”

And like so many successful, empowered women, Saunders loves a good quote. Instead of having a single favorite quote, she describes herself as a quote person and has a new one each day. She finds herself constantly collecting aphorisms and sending them to her co-workers and staff.

On the day of the interview, the quote was from Genghis Khan: “There is no good in anything until it’s finished.”

That very quote ties into some advice Saunders wants to pass along to students.

“Graduate. Plan to graduate...It does take a plan. It doesn’t count unless you finish.”

Saunders is a huge proponent of networking, but not in a formal way.

“I think it’s just staying in touch with people that you meet and making a point of doing that because you never know when an opportunity is going to come up.”

She also advises that after graduation, students pay it forward in their communites.

“If you go to a state university, you owe somebody.” Saunders says. “There are scholarships that people have given us. Universities like ours were built on the backs of those who didn’t have the opportunity. We owe them.”

Saunders is giving back to the University in her own way through her presidency.

“This is where I got my start as a faculty member,” Saunders says. “When I got onto this campus, it was just the most wonderful thing and I thought ‘I could do this until I die and die happy.’ This has been a place that has given me professional opportunities and for me to be able to come back learning all that I have learned... and give back to the institution feels great. It feels like home, and it’s where I belong.”