Armenti caught off guard by firing
Many saw Angelo Armenti Jr.'s self-hewn empire crumbling around him.
But not Armenti.
Not even on that May afternoon when he was summoned to Harrisburg and fired amid the hail of criticism that engulfed his final days as president of California University of Pennsylvania.
“I didn't consider for a moment that it could happen,” Armenti, 72, said during an hourlong interview from his home in Chesterbrook in Chester County.
“I had two years left on my contract and 20 years of outstanding evaluations. On all accounts, I was doing a great job,” the former physics professor said.
But more than 600 emails to and from Armenti and state officials show a gradual buildup of tensions between Armenti and his superiors, eclipsed only by the escalating contempt that faculty members showed for him.
The emails — from February 2010 to April 2012 — were released by the university 31⁄2 months after the Tribune-Review requested them under the state's Right to Know Law. School officials redacted some portions, citing sections of the law that protect discussions about labor negotiations or employee disciplinary proceedings.
Central to many of the emails are John Cavanaugh, chancellor of the State System of Higher Education, which oversees the 14 state schools, and Armenti ally Robert Irey, chairman of the university's council of trustees, who warned Armenti that his job could be in jeopardy because of the acrimony.
Armenti recently filed suit in Commonwealth Court over his firing, naming the state system, Cavanaugh and Guido Pichini, chairman of the system's board of governors.
Early on, Armenti and Cavanaugh's exchanges were polite and businesslike.
But with complaints — many anonymous — pouring in to Cavanaugh about Armenti, the talk turned tough as Armenti accused Cavanaugh of waging a “nefarious, but by now increasingly obvious campaign against me,” according to a March 8 email to the chancellor.
Through a spokesman, Cavanaugh declined to comment for this story.
One of the earliest indications of a divide between Armenti and Cavanaugh occurred in a Feb. 24, 2011, email after Cavanaugh learned the school had fallen $10 million short on its pledge to raise $12 million to fund the school's $59 million convocation center, a mammoth facility Armenti touted as the campus' “crown jewel.” At that point, construction was well under way, and the shortfall threatened completion.
In the email, Cavanaugh said it was unlikely the state would bail out the university and reminded Armenti about the school's mounting debt from other projects.
“We discussed the fact that Cal U is already pushing the limits on indebtedness,” Cavanaugh said.
“As I indicated to you, I think it is unlikely that these requests will be met with immediate support from the board,” he wrote. “... They will likely remind you that certain commitments regarding fundraising have not been achieved.”
Armenti prevailed, and the state system approved an additional $15 million to complete the center, which opened in December and has posted dismal financial results.
A year later, Cavanaugh ordered an audit of the school's finances and found the university raised only $4,000 for the convocation center project, not $2 million, as originally thought.
Critics cited Armenti's decision to build the sprawling center — twice as large as a university-backed study recommended and plagued with cost overruns — as one example of free-wheeling spending they said crippled academic programs and plunged the school deeply in debt.
“Our academic programs have been butchered. For more than five years, I have cautioned that we are past the point of diminishing returns, but you just keep cutting,” faculty union President Michael Slavin wrote in an April 5 email to Armenti and other top administrators.
To date, records show a total of only 3,100 spectators attended nine basketball games at the center. Other events combined have generated about $195,000 of the more than $1 million in revenue needed to operate the facility each year.
Armenti appeared to reach a breaking point in regard to Cavanaugh on March 8, when he wrote to Pichini.
“I have no quarrel with you. ... I do have a serious quarrel with my treatment ... at the hands of Chancellor Cavanaugh and in a formal complaint I will be filing against the chancellor, I will lay out specific allegations,” Armenti wrote.
Pichini declined to comment.
In his 41-page complaint, Armenti said his relationship with the chancellor was dealt a blow this year when Cavanaugh alleged he ignored a directive that no comments be made about Gov. Tom Corbett's budget proposal, which officials incorrectly predicted would contain widespread higher education cuts.
But Armenti said he did nothing wrong.
In January, at a gathering of faculty and managers, he talked about plans for dealing with impending budget cuts, he recalled.
He said he talked about cutting some management positions in the spring and perhaps eliminating some nonunion faculty posts and other faculty positions in subsequent years.
A campus newspaper reported the statements, which later appeared in mainstream newspapers the same day that Corbett announced his proposed budget, Armenti said.
He insisted his remarks were not direct comments about the budget, but he could not control the fact that his statements, made days earlier, appeared in print alongside the Corbett stories.
Irey also wrote to Pichini about Armenti's complaint.
Irey told Pichini that when he arrived at the school's Kara Alumni House on March 8 to meet with Armenti and Cavanaugh to complete an evaluation of Armenti, the chancellor asked him to walk down the hall before the president arrived.
“Dr. Cavanaugh informed me that things were not as they appear here at Cal. He told me he had received numerous complaints of financial inconsistencies, which they were in the process of auditing,” according to Irey's March 22 email.
In another email, Irey warned Armenti, “be prepared for the worst possible outcome … getting fired.”
Irey's fears came true when Armenti was fired on May 16.
But Irey said he believed Cavanaugh's job also might be on the line.
“I believe you now have the chancellor running for cover,” Irey wrote in the March 12 email. “I'm sure you have come to the conclusion that the BOG (state system board of governors) may have no other choice but to terminate John pending their investigation.”
In June, Cavanaugh's contract was renewed, giving him $327,500 a year through 2015.
In an earlier email, Irey offered Armenti advice about dealing with Cavanaugh, whom he called “stupid.”
“If he (Cavanaugh) smacks you, the appropriate response is a 2-by-4,” Irey said.
“That I regret saying,” Irey said this week. “I feel terrible that Angelo lost his job when he did a superb job as president. I don't think his work was done. Time will tell what the real reason was for his termination.”
Amanda Dolasinski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at724-836-6220 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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