University administrators still hopeful, despite loose ends, over Royal Caribbean Partnership

By: Valentina Palm/Staff Writer


Five years after the University and Royal Caribbean began a partnership promising to benefit both institutions, differences in partnership visions have only made possible the development of half of the educational components promised to FIU, according to the assistant vice president of FIU’s Engagement Office.

The partnership was meant to provide RCL the construction of the biggest entertainment production facility outside of Hollywood while giving the University economic and academic benefits.

“RCL’s vision and FIU’s vision of projects were very different when it was first established but we are in a much better place right now,” said Caryn Lavernia, assistant vice president of FIU’s Engagement Office who oversees the partnership’s operations. “The ROYAL@FIU Stage Collaborative was the original vision FIU had for the production studio.”

The undeveloped ROYAL@FIU Stage Collaborative brand’s purpose was to give “FIU students unprecedented access to training, internship opportunities in the hospitality and cruising industry and giving Royal Caribbean performers a cutting edge facility to bring production to life,” according to its original promotional video.

Contract Provisions

Currently, student access to the facility is restricted and only available upon scheduled request. University students officially go inside the building only seven times a year for two master classes, a lecture workshop and a tour each semester, according to the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) Student Media obtained from FIU’s Engagement Office.

The internship opportunities portion of the agreement, however, has improved since the deal was signed, with the number of accepted interns having risen from two in 2016 to 26 in summer 2018, according to Lavernia.

Since 2015, RCCL has had complete access and control of the state-of the-art facility, and because they use the entire building, there is no capacity for a dedicated student space–officials involved in the partnership said.

“On FIU’s side, we thought we would have dedicated space in the building and that is not the case as it is a working facility so the place has to be requested ahead of time to get access,” said Lavernia. “The challenge with that facility is that they are at 100 percent capacity, and they didn’t expect that to happen only three years after its inauguration.”

Economically, FIU has benefited from having RCCL invest around $40 million in the Biscayne Bay campus with the construction of the production studio and the renovation of the RCCL building– which was formerly known as the Bay Vista Dorms. That building is now used to house performers and staff. The investment granted RCCL a lease contract to utilize the 132,500-square-foot-facility and dorms that house up to 470 people at a preferential annual rate of $70,000 for 40 years with negotiable extension leasing terms.

Those $70,000 are then distributed as follows: $60,000 for CARTA’s Departments of Theater and Music, with the remaining $10,000 to the Chapin School of Hospitality for scholarships.

The academic collaboration terms between FIU and RCCL were updated in their MOU in May 2017. It outlines four educational components with 18 total subcategories to be developed with FIU, only half of which are currently in the works.

Lavernia said that the MOU update was a “strategic change” meant to ensure that the components of the partnership were developed.

Currently, there are nine educational components in the agreement being developed every semester: for FIU Music and Theater students, access to the production facility specifically for a tour and two master classes, a shipboard theater tour, guest lecture workshops with RCCL executives and mock auditions.

For students university-wide, internship positions have been made available and RCCL attends the College of Business Career Fair annually. Finally, the mandatory position of an RCCL liaison is active and handled by the corporation’s recruiter, Mr. Chip Turrisi.

Joel Murray, Chair of the FIU Theater Department, said the partnership has been very successful, with improvements being done every year. Based on the agreement, theater students are the ones who benefit the most from the partnership’s active benefits.

“This successful relationship is very important to the FIU Department of Theater and Music as activities directly feed into the curriculum of what they are learning in the classroom,” said Murray.

No Research to Be Found

However, not all of the components are developed, such as RCCL’s $120,000 annual research investment in the University, a set design competition for theatre students and the unutilized ROYAL@FIUStage Collaborative brand for hospitality students.

Hospitality administrators confirmed to Student Media that there is no record of recent guest lectures. However, they say it’s because professors plan guest speakers individually. That being said, RCCL’s leadership guests speakers are not consistent every semester, according to the administrators.

There are also no records of recent shipboard hospitality back-office tours. These tours have not been done since 2017, according to Michael Cheng, the dean of the Chaplin Hospitality School. But, a meeting has been requested with RCCL to discuss the future of the partnership, he said.

Since 2017, the MOU requires RCCL to submit research proposals totaling an annual investment of $120,000. This research investment has never been developed, which means that by the end of 2018, FIU students have not been able to take advantage of $240,000 worth of research development. This also means University faculty and students haven’t had the opportunity to engage in research benefitting RCCL. This investment is a crucial component of the partnership as it surpasses RCCL’s annual $70,000 payment to the University and could be the most immersive of the component.

Lavernia and Turrisi said to Student Media that research development hasn’t been possible because of the Florida Sunshine Law, which requires all information related to public universities to be made public record. The problem is that RCCL’s data is considered a trade secret, and the company didn’t want to give up confidential information during research projects.

Lavernia also said the research has not been developed because the other mandatory position of an RCCL executive sponsor–meant to be held by a chief RCCL senior executive– for the partnership, is vacant.

Turrisi said it is Royal Caribbean’s priority to start research in 2019, but was unable confirm at the time of the interview if RCCL was preparing any research proposals for the upcoming spring semester.

It is unclear as to how research would even be possible because of the conflict with Sunshine State Law.

Breneza DaParre Garcia, who oversees the RCCL partnership within the office of University President Mark B. Rosenberg, said Rosenberg is aware that the research investment hasn’t happened and that he has already raised questions to RCCL’s former CEO and current Vice Chairman, Adam Goldstein.

DaParre Garcia also said that the lack of research only indirectly affects FIU and does not make the partnership unbeneficial to the University, because the research would mainly be a benefit to Royal Caribbean.

“If you are looking dollar for dollar it is a loss to the University but we don’t see it as such as we have been focusing on the master classes, mock auditions, and internships that directly affect students, giving them experience and putting money in their pockets,” said DeParre Garcia.

Cheng confirmed to Student Media that the school’s current relationship with RCCL is limited to the $10,000 given annually for scholarships. The University’s Engagement Office also notifies the school when RCCL student internships are available every semester.

Finally, the 17th component of the partnership grants three board appointments to RCCL executives in the CARTA, Chaplin and College of Business Dean’s boards. The most active position is held by Hernan Zini who consistently attends the meetings. In CARTA, Oliver Ionita who oversees the board’s operations was unable to determine when was the last time Nick Weir attended a meeting. In the Chaplin dean’s board, there is no RCCL involvement.

New Year, New Contract

DaParre Garcia said that a new MOU revision is likely to happen in order to evaluate what has and hasn’t worked and that a restructuring of the agreement has to happen. An executive sponsor won’t work because there is so much turnover in within Royal Caribbean, she said, so a team of people would be a much better idea to keep track of projects long term.

Even though RCCL has full control of the building and half of the academic deliverables haven’t been developed, Lavernia considers the partnership as a long-term benefit to the University.

“The Leadership was thinking long term, they were thinking about it as the University we are going to have this state of the arts facility even if it is in 40 years from now. Right now it is their space, they are leasing it and it is still worth it as it will revert back to FIU,” said Lavernia.

Lavernia also said that having the company located on the University campus is a long term benefit to FIU because of the seamless connection between workforce and industry.

According to Kathy Barrero, the Production Studio facility supervisor, the partnership began because of University Provost Kenneth Furton’s relationship with Goldstein. The Provost’s Office did not respond to comment on the nature of this relationship despite Student Media’s multiple attempts during the three months of this investigation.

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