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Cal U might not hire permanent president until next year, officials say

By Amanda Dolasinski and Kari Andren
Monday, July 1, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

More than a year after California University of Pennsylvania President Angelo Armenti Jr. was ousted amid a swirl of controversy, officials say it could be next year before his successor is in place.

“It's kind of a tough situation,” said Washington County Commissioner Larry Maggi, who serves as president of the university's council of trustees. “We know the importance of having permanent leadership.”

Maggi said the university's hands are tied until the chairman of the Pennsylvania System of Higher Education, overseer of the 14 state-owned universities, gives the go-ahead to begin the search for the school's new leader.

Through spokesman Kenn Marshall, board Chairman Guido Pichini said the search for a new Cal U president will not begin until the state system completes its ongoing search for a new chancellor, an opening left by the resignation of Chancellor John Cavanaugh in December.

The delay marks a departure from comments made by Marshall in June 2012, a month after Armenti was fired. At that time, Marshall predicted the Cal U search would begin in about a month, after presidential vacancies at Millersville and Mansfield universities were filled.

The Mansfield position was filled in late October, and the Millersville position was filled in December, according to state system records.

In the last two years, the state system has filled six presidential vacancies stemming from firings, resignations and retirements.

The shortest time required to fill a vacant post was the nine months it took to replace Edinboro University President Jeremy Brown, who announced on March 15, 2011, that he would resign, state system records show.

The longest time needed to replace a state university president was at Indiana University of Pennsylvania where it took two years from the time Tony Atwater announced his resignation to the time President Michael Driscoll started at the school.

The Cal U post has been vacant for 13 months.

‘A perfect storm'

Maggi, while complimentary of the job interim Cal U President Geraldine Jones has done, said it's the “unknown” that makes operating without a permanent president difficult.

For instance, he said faculty may be hesitant to propose programs without knowing if a new president will support them.

“They may be concerned about whether this program will be here two or three years from now,” Maggi said. “It's normal for people to be concerned about the unknown.”

“I think California University has faced a perfect storm,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the Washington-based American Council on Education.

“Their president left suddenly, the state board had to deal with a slew of state vacancies, and (Chancellor John) Cavanaugh has resigned,” Hartle said. “Although this isn't desirable or standard practice, there are clear reasons (the search hasn't started).”

A search typically takes between six and nine months, even in situations when presidents announce their departure, Hartle said.

Searches for university presidents can be complicated, he said. The pool of candidates for most searches is nationwide, and if multiple searches occur at once, the pool thins.

“They will end up with several hundred nominations. They will sift them and distill them until they get it down to 25. It was never designed to be a fast or seamless process,” Hartle said.

Even after the search is authorized by Pichini, the process to fill the Cal U position will be time-consuming, Marshall said.

The university's council of trustees will form a search committee and hire one of four state-approved consultants, he said.

The search committee will hold telephone interviews to narrow the candidate list to about five. Those candidates are typically asked to visit campus for a series of meetings, Marshall said.

The search committee picks three candidates and submits the names to the state board for the final selection.

School's financial mess

Despite the absence of a permanent president, many have voiced approval of Jones, 62, a Cal U graduate and former second-grade teacher who returned to her alma mater in 1974 to assume a series of administrative positions leading to her current role.

Cal U spokeswoman Christine Kindl said Jones indicated it would be premature to make a decision about whether to pursue the job as permanent president, but she would be willing to consider it.

Michael Slavin, the faculty union president and theater department chairman at the university, was one of Armenti's harshest and most vocal critics.

Slavin said he has a “much better relationship” with Jones and although he would like to see the search begin, he thinks Jones has done much more than serve as a caretaker.

“She is making decisions,” Slavin said. “She understood most of the mess and got angry about most of the other messes she found out about. It was clear to me that a lot of the administration didn't know how bad it was financially. She didn't realize some of it.”

Jones cites progress

Since temporarily assuming the helm at Cal U, Jones has quietly worked through issues of rising debt, dropping enrollment and unrest among faculty members who believed Armenti was sacrificing academic programs to fund his campuswide building boom.

Jones has seldom granted one-on-one interviews, but she recently spoke about her accomplishments in emailed responses to questions.

“From my earliest days as acting president, and now as interim president, I've made it clear that I intend to keep the university moving forward,” she said. “At my first faculty-staff convocation in my new role, I laid out three goals: to focus our attention on our core mission of educating students, to address the university's financial situation and to stabilize enrollment.

“Have we made progress? Definitely. In the past year, we refocused on academics and provided resources to support our academic programs. ... I was able to adjust our budget and direct an additional $1.5 million to academics. At the same time, we trimmed the university's deficit by more than $10 million, and we continue to look for savings.”

In terms of enrollment, she said, “our recruiting of freshman and transfer students is going well.”

“Cal U still faces changes — every university does,” she said. “But with the help of my leadership team, I believe we've made progress in these three areas.”

Amanda Dolasinski and Kari Andren are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Dolasinski can be reached at 724-836-6220 or adolasinski@tribweb.com. Andren can be reached at 724-850-2856 or kandren@tribweb.com.

 

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