By Kathryn Rose
“It was the great humorist Will Rogers who once said, ‘You can be on the right track, but if you’re not moving on down the track, you’ll get run over.’ IUP is certainly on the right track. But our excellent university must move forward down that track or it may be overtaken by the market forces and currents of change that are gradually transforming our institution’s destiny.”
–IUP President Tony Atwater, inaugural address, Fisher Auditorium, Oct. 6, 2005
INDIANA — Since his inauguration four years ago, Indiana University of Pennsylvania President Tony Atwater has faced forces both favorable and unfriendly for the institution he heads, as he predicted in his first official address to the campus. But as the school’s 24th president entered his fifth year in office, questions about the university’s destiny – and his administration of the institution — have been growing.
Pressure has come from IUP students, the faculty, the press (both local and national) and the economy. Each has added to a chorus of concern over the way that Atwater has managed the campus, its cash and his constituents.
The concerns have not kept Atwater from maintaining a steady pace of official activities to show progress on multiple fronts. On July 7, for example, he led a delegation of local, campus and corporate dignitaries in a groundbreaking ceremony for the fourth and final phase of the university’s Residential Revival project.
The $270 million program, described by Atwater as the largest construction project of its kind in the country, started in 2006 and is on track toward fall 2010 completion, according to the university. By then, the privately funded project will have razed 14 aging dormitories and erected new suite-style residences for about 3,800 students.
Atwater has linked the project to the university’s financial future as he has presided over growing enrollments. On Sept. 22, he reported that the fall 2009 semester recorded the university’s highest-ever number of students — 14,638, up 4.6 percent from the 13,998 enrolled when Atwater arrived on campus in February 2005. In 2008, the Board of Governors of the State System of Higher Education extended Atwater’s contract through June 30, 2011.
But other efforts have not fared so well under Atwater. The Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex, a project he inherited, has fallen on hard times even as it rises on a former junkyard adjoining university property. Fundraising for the facility has lagged, the Indiana Gazette reported in mid-October. And development of a companion 140-room full-service hotel reportedly ended in the fall, casting doubt on the financial futures of both projects. The university said it still plans to complete the Kovalchick center in spring 2011, as scheduled.
But in spring 2009, questions arose about prospects for the projects’ completion when Dr. Robert O. Davies, the man Atwater hired early in his administration to shepherd the construction projects to completion, resigned as executive director of the private Foundation for IUP and as IUP vice president of university relations. Davies took a position as president of a university in Oregon, effective July 1.
In August, Atwater announced that he had selected G. Patrick Williams, a senior vice president for development at the Saint Louis Science Center in St. Louis, Mo., to replace Davies, effective Sept. 21. But on Sept. 22, Atwater emailed university faculty and staff to report that Williams had resigned on the eve of starting his new job. Williams had cited “personal and family reasons,” Atwater reported.
Also on Sept. 22, The Washington Post reported in a story datelined Indiana, Pa., that U.S. Rep. John P. Murtha, D-Pa., had funneled $3 million in federal earmarks to the KCAC to host the Murtha Institute on Homeland Security, now housed in the Suites on Grant. But the congressman reassigned another $4 million for the project this year after his lobbying connections and defense earmarks came under investigation in Washington.
In the Post story, Atwater did not address the redirected federal earmark. But he touted the university’s efforts to secure “federal funding research projects.”
Student news media pointedly have questioned the president’s spending. In its Sept. 29 and Oct. 2 editions, the IUP student newspaper The Penn published back-to-back opinion pieces critical of Atwater. Both were written by Max P. McAuley, a senior English and international business major at IUP.
McAuley wrote that he has worked at IUP for four years, three in grounds keeping. He reported that the university rebuilt the flower garden at Atwater’s south-campus residence three times. McCauley estimated that each garden rebuild cost about $5,000.
The figure exceeds the annual budgets of some academic subdivisions, including the Journalism Department.
McAuley called for a watchdog on Atwater’s spending, suggesting that the president “can vacuum his own floor.” McAuley’s Oct. 2 column concluded: “We cannot remedy the mistakes of Atwater, but we can protect IUP from future imprudence.”
Questions about campus construction projects and their coincidence with a deep economic recession have raised concerns about university budgeting from other quarters. Unionized faculty members have reacted with alarm at hints from Harrisburg that teaching positions might be cut and academic programs might be eliminated.
At an Oct. 5 University Senate meeting, for example, a faculty member asked Atwater about a report that the university’s athletic budget might increase by 50 percent – to $9 million from $6 million a year. He replied that the plan – dubbed Operation Frontrunner – is “only a proposal.” He added that the plan had been endorsed by the university’s trustees. His vice president of student affairs, Rhonda Luckey, added that “the reallocation of existing resources” in the proposal “is intended to reinforce our academic mission.”
Later that month, the IUP Council of Chairs, a group of academic-department heads, wrote Atwater to express consternation over the president’s surprise announcement to take authority over personnel budgeting away from the provost – the university’s top academic officer — and centralize it under the president’s office and his chief financial officer, retroactive to July 1.
The chairs’ letter to Atwater concluded that “there has been a violation of trust” and urged the president to come before the group to explain. Atwater replied through Provost Gerald Intemann on Oct. 20 that the president would attend the meeting to discuss another matter but would not address the personnel-budgeting issue.
Faculty questions continued in a Nov. 3 Senate meeting when Atwater’s chief financial officer was grilled about a report suggesting that the campus’s public funds for academic programs and campus governance – called education-and-government, or E&G, funds — would be used to pay the bills for the private and under-funded Kovalchick Center, or KCAC. The financial officer, Cornelius Wooten, vice president for administration and finance, denied the assertion in a testy exchange.
“I can say as chief financial officer, we understand that we are not to pay for the KCAC with E&G funds,” Wooten said.
Despite Wooten’s assurances, Senate Chairman Peter Broad a few minutes later made pointed references to “creative financing schemes.” He also urged senators that “IUP might well think of how we evaluate campus presidents” and expressed concern about Atwater’s personnel-budgeting decision.
“It’s the 500-pound gorilla in the room,” Broad said.
Students, too, have joined the chorus of criticism about Atwater’s perceived lack of transparency. During a classroom talk in Davis Hall on Oct. 22, Student Government Association President Alyssa Stiles recounted her efforts to secure a commitment from Atwater to attend another in a series of public “Speak Up, IUP” forums designed to let students question the president and his administration.
“I’ve been trying to schedule him since July,” Stiles said. The effort failed, she added.
“I would at least expect him to come to a ‘Speak Up, IUP’ event and to hear the concerns of the student body,” Stiles said in an Oct. 28 interview at the SGA office in the Hadley Union Building. “I guess I’m just kind of frustrated.”
Kathryn Rose, a senior journalism and communications media major at IUP, is from Bangor, Pa. David Loomis contributed reporting to this story.
Two groups representing Indiana University of Pennsylvania faculty gave a green light on Thursday to a vote in December on a resolution of “no confidence” in campus President Tony Atwater. The decisions of both groups to proceed to the Dec. 14-16 vote were unanimous.
The groups are the Representative Council of the campus chapter of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, or APSCUF, and members of the Council of Chairs, a group of academic department heads. The groups met jointly at the Hadley Union Building.
The bill of particulars prepared for the upcoming vote by the 777-member campus union cited 31 complaints about Atwater and his four-year administration. The items fell into four categories:
- Disregard for principles of shared governance
- Inappropriate and excessive spending
- An alienating leadership style
- Poor decision-making
A union official said APSCUF leaders were gratified by Thursday’s outcome.
“We’re pleased with today’s vote of Rep Council, as well as the vote of the chairs present,” said APSCUF Vice President Francisco Alarcon, an IUP mathematics professor.
Other union leaders recalled that Thursday’s vote is the third such endorsement of a vote of no confidence against IUP presidents since the union’s 1973 organization as the representative of the faculties of the 14 campuses in the State System of Higher Education.
The most recent faculty vote of confidence occurred in 2001. The vote targeted IUP President Lawrence K. Pettit. Within a year, Pettit announced his retirement.
Union representatives acknowledged that a no-confidence vote would have no immediate impact on Atwater’s employment status. But they predicted that it would not go unnoticed by the IUP Council of Trustees and the Board of Governors of the State System of Higher Education in Harrisburg when Atwater’s contract is reviewed later in the current academic year.
Union members on Thursday said the bill of particulars against Pettit was shorter than the three-page bill aimed at Atwater.
A Friday, Nov. 20, call to President Atwater’s office for a reaction to Thursday’s developments was referred to the office of university spokeswoman Michelle Fryling, who had no immediate comment.