IUP ex-president cites politics in departure

| Friday, March 4, 2011

When Indiana University of Pennsylvania's faculty voted it had no confidence in President Lawrence J. Pettit in November 2001, the public reason was that he had ordered the closing of a cherished laboratory school for children run by the university.

But there was a scandalous undertone fueled by an anonymous letter circulating that repeated an accusation Pettit's ex-wife made when she left him three years before: Pettit had a sexual affair with a male student.

Pettit denies that rumor and denies that he is gay.

But it was "the elephant in the room" that, mixed with some partisan politics, would lead Pettit to retire from IUP after 11 years, he said. He wrote about it last year in a self-published memoir, "If You Live by the Sword: Politics in the Making and Unmaking of a University President."

"It was something I couldn't deal with directly, and that kind of rumor is hard to disprove," Pettit, 73, said Thursday. "To some extent, some people might think it cheapens the book that is essentially an academic book. But I couldn't write about the last years of my career and not write about it."

Pettit, who moved to his home state of Montana in 2007, is in Indiana to attend today's opening of the $79 million Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex, a project he initiated as president.

"I figured I had to tell the story. I had to tell the truth as things unfolded," Pettit said. "Most of the actors are no longer in place. If they still were, I probably would have held back."

Pettit worked as a campaign manager for a Montana governor, served as an aide to two congressmen and ran for Congress. He served as a university president or chancellor in four states over 30 years.

"It was pretty hard to escape the political identity, which got in the way sometimes," said Pettit, a self-described FDR Democrat from a working-class family. "In both Illinois and Pennsylvania, the partisanship, in the end, was my undoing."

At IUP, Pettit said he was politically battered by the demands of faculty and staff and by the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.

Pettit said he defended IUP when state system officials tried to "corporatize" the universities by treating each like a branch and the presidents like branch managers.

IUP was the largest of the 14 state universities and was the only one offering doctoral programs, but system officials seemed to balk at celebrating the university's achievements, he said.

IUP's doctoral programs were not funded by the state, so the money came from the university's budget. "It caused us to have less money per student than our sister institutions for undergraduate programs," Pettit said.

The problem was rectified with the arrival of a new state chancellor, he said.

"It got to the point, as much as I loved IUP and being its president, no matter what the internal politics were, I almost hated having to go to system meetings," Pettit said.

Pettit said he had a cordial relationship with IUP's faculty union but that relationship became contentious during contract negotiations in 1999, although he had little input on such matters.

Pettit readily admits he could have done better. "That happened at a time when I was under extreme stress because of the second divorce," Pettit said. "I was quick to anger, and I was probably difficult to deal with as president."

Faculty members were angered by Pettit's decision to close the University School, a laboratory school run by the College of Education.

"It was difficult to have a vote of no confidence against me, when they were really the people I held in high esteem," Pettit said.

He remains an overall union supporter.

"I'm certainly with the unions in the Wisconsin situation," Pettit said about the debate over public employees' collective bargaining rights. "But I see my book could be used on the other side."

The rumors and faculty vote made Pettit vulnerable to partisan politics of the system's Board of Governors, he said.

Although his contract was extended after the vote, Pettit said, he decided in 2002 to retire at the end of his contract in 2004. But the board whittled that down to one year and paid him for the last year of his contract.

"I always had a tendency to be impatient and wanted to ram things through and move my own career and whatever institution I was associated with rapidly," Pettit said. "If I was to do it all once again, I would be more relaxed and patient. I would try to build consensus. I would try to be more even-tempered."

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