Sunday, March 18, 2007
Rivers completes noteworthy first year as FVSU president
John Simmons, a 1969 graduate of Fort Valley State University, recalls the action that made the biggest impact on alumni when Larry E. Rivers first arrived as president.
Rivers and his wife contributed $100,000 to a challenge fund, enticing other alums to donate as well. The fund now stands at $1.2 million - toward a $3 million goal - for programs to create future teachers and scientists.
Simmons, a retired Bibb County sheriff's deputy, is president of the Macon-Bibb County chapter of the Fort Valley State University Alumni. He said Rivers set the direction for his leadership of the school with his staggering personal donation.
"He gave us our marching orders and we're trying to follow," said Simmons, who is also a retired Air Force major.
Rivers and those who work closely on his team make no bones about it: The university president is a man of action and expects others to get with the program.
"It was not about what the university can do for me," Rivers said in an interview in his office as his first-year anniversary approached this past Wednesday. "It was about what I can do for the university."
When Rivers grabbed the reins of one of Georgia's three public, historically black universities, he immediately faced myriad challenges, including a teacher education program stuck on probation, several years of declining student enrollment and millions of dollars in debt to the Board of Regents.
Rivers had not been made aware of just how big a hole his alma mater was in when he took the job. But even if he had been given the full, grim picture, he says, his course of action would have been the same.
"I probably would've thought twice, given the challenges that I didn't know about," Rivers admitted. Yet, he said, "I probably still would have taken the position because Fort Valley is my alma mater."
Rivers went about tackling the obstacles like a man with a deadline.
Some progress has come quickly, but challenges remain.
REVERSING DOWNWARD TRENDS
The new administration no doubt breathed a huge sigh of relief when the Georgia Professional Standards Commission approved teacher education programs in middle grades education and agricultural education last fall.
The College of Education at Fort Valley State has suffered since being placed on probation in 2004, when the standards commission reprimanded the school for not meeting state requirements.
On another bright note, freshman enrollment at Fort Valley State increased from 688 students to 867 students in the fall. For the spring semester this year, 2,204 students enrolled, compared to 2,000 who enrolled in spring 2006.
Rivers in his first year also has overseen a building program that featured groundbreaking on a $44 million student residential village designed to accommodate 941 students and attract even more students to the university.
The university has secured $1.1 million from the National Park Service and the state Board of Regents for renovation of Huntington Hall.
And if all these weighty matters weren't enough to keep him busy, Rivers also managed to deliver on a longstanding school promise to erect a morale-boosting wildcat statue on campus.
The 10-foot-long, 3,000-pound bronze mascot stands guard near the student center, brandishing claws and baring teeth at all who would challenge the Wildcat's mastery of his domain.
The sculpture cost $35,000 to create, plus an additional $4,600 for crating, shipping and installation. The funds for the statue had been raised by the Fort Valley State University Foundation in the mid-1990s, but previous administrations had not managed to translate plans into something concrete - or bronze.
Canter Brown Jr., special assistant and counsel Rivers brought with him from Florida A&M University, said when the money originally was raised, the monument they had in mind cost a lot more. Through the years, inertia set in and plans for the monument were placed on the backburner.
When Rivers arrived, he saw the potential to boost morale and came up with a monument that would be less costly, but effective.
His push paid off. Ever since the massive beast was installed during homecoming weekend last October, students and alumni have clamored to have their picture taken with the Fort Valley State Wildcat.
With all Rivers' quick-term successes, obstacles still lie ahead for his school.
In the absence of accredited programs in its College of Education, Fort Valley State lost 400 students, Rivers says, resulting in a loss of $4 million - the full effects of which the university has not yet felt.
There's also that nagging $5.5 million debt the president inherited. For four academic years, the school ran over budget. Since no school in the university system is allowed to carry a deficit, the Board of Regents, which governs the University System of Georgia, covered the costs.
The Board of Regents has reduced the cost by $1.2 million. Yet a $4.3 million debt remains, and Rivers already has noted that the university may have to look at future personnel layoffs.
Rivers already has made substantial staff changes. Within two months of his arrival, 14 university employees either were fired or reassigned.
Making headlines was the ouster of head football coach John Morgan Jr., whose contract was not renewed, along with his four assistant coaches.
Rivers said the decision came after consulting with members of his administrative team.
"That was a hard decision that had to be made," Rivers said, adding that the move allowed the school to attract assistant coaches who also could recruit and teach when not on the field.
Most recently, the university split its Office of Recruitment and Admissions in an effort to enhance enrollment.
CONNECTING WITH THE COMMUNITY
The impact of Rivers in his inaugural year as president is felt and noticed beyond the gates of the university and Georgia's academic establishment. Rivers energetically has promoted a concept he calls the "communiversity," where the university and local governments and community leaders work together for the mutual benefit of all.
"By offering to help other parts of the community, they will embrace us," Rivers said.
Joy Moten-Thomas, the university's housing specialist, said an immediate focus of the communiversity effort was to improve Fort Valley State's neighborhood.
The university partnered with the city of Fort Valley and Peach County on the State University Drive Corridor project, which calls for the beautification of the campus' immediate surroundings.
In September, the city government and the university announced plans to create an improvement zone around State University Drive. The area also includes State University Boulevard and Carver Drive.
An initial sign of improvement to come was the installation of a 32-foot monument, replicating the university's Founders Hall with a clock tower. The structure was placed in the middle of State University Drive.
The project was completed through in-kind contributions from the city government and from private donations.
Moten-Thomas said plans call for additional streetlights and a median to be installed in the center of State University Drive by October of this year.
Rivers said the improvement zone is vital to the university's grand plan to increase enrollment.
"When we improve the surroundings, it increases the likelihood parents will send their children," Rivers said.
Likewise, Rivers has reached out to the business community. Fort Valley State served as host for a business after-hours function in which business leaders in six neighboring counties participated. The Peach County Chamber of Commerce sponsored the event.
Gene Sheets, president of the chamber, said Rivers truly believes in being a part of the community. Rivers already has been more visible and participated in more business activities than previous presidents, said Sheets, who has been chamber executive director for about five years.
"He knows that if the university and the community work together, it will make a difference in the overall economy," Sheets said.
When Rivers can't attend a function, his wife, Betty, also a Fort Valley State graduate, fills in. The "first lady" of FVSU serves on the board of directors for the chamber of commerce, for example.
Peach County Commission Chairman James Khoury counts the president's wife as one of Rivers' greatest assets as an ambassador for the university.
Khoury said the president's vision for the university has been embraced by everybody across the board.
"He certainly brings an air of enthusiasm and his enthusiasm is contagious," Khoury said.
Since taking office, Rivers has spoken to more than 300 educational, civic and religious groups with very few free weekends.
And he expects more of the same as he moves forward with his vision for his beloved university. His plans include improving the university's public relations efforts as well as the admissions and enrollment departments. He would like to see the criminal justice program expanded into a distinct school.
Quick to acknowledge the faculty and staff's critical role in the school's success, Rivers said one major goal is for the enrollment and morale to increase after his time at the university is past.
"That's the true mark of an effective leader," Rivers said.
Simmons is proud of the changes he has seen on campus since Rivers has declared that "It's a new day in the Valley."
"I just wish he had arrived years ago," Simmons said.