Fort Valley State University president Rivers to step down, says goals met

Telegraph staffNovember 1, 2012 

FORT VALLEY -- Fort Valley Mayor John Stumbo remembers what the local university looked like seven years ago, before Larry Rivers took the reins.

“If you look at the university campus and took a snapshot today and a snapshot seven years ago -- it’s incredible the difference,” he said.

That’s why Stumbo said he was sad to hear that Rivers, Fort Valley State University president, plans to step down June 30, 2013. Rivers, a 1973 FVSU alum, became president in March 2006 after serving as dean of the college of arts and sciences at Florida A&M University, where he also taught history.

“These almost seven years have offered exhilaration and challenge, but I feel that our university has been able to move forward and that the goals I set upon my arrival have been met,” Rivers said in a news release. “I owe thanks to my administrative team and to all members of the FVSU family.”

Rivers could not be reached for further comment by press time Thursday.

During his tenure, Rivers has helped the school progress and lure more students, but he has also endured controversy.

In April, the university’s faculty senate voted no confidence in Rivers, though that vote was later rescinded. At the time, a member of the faculty senate claimed the no-confidence vote stemmed from dissatisfaction with recent furloughs across the campus. A letter from the president of the faculty senate also mentioned an issue with accredidation.

“They had some pretty valid concerns, I thought,” said Melvin Walker, FVSU professor of economics and Peach County commission chairman, adding that he is not a faculty senator. “No one has really addressed those concerns.”

A little over a week after the no-confidence vote, faculty members voted 77 to 15 with one abstention to rescind it and then approved another vote stating their confidence in Rivers. In 40 years of teaching at the university, Walker said he has seen eight presidents come and go. It seems the university has a hard time finding a good fit for that position, although all of the presidents have been capable, he said.

“Hopefully, someone will take a good look at it this time around,” he said, adding that during Rivers’ tenure “he has done a fine job at building our facilities.”

Toni Johnson, who received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from FVSU, says she remembers Rivers as being a hands-on president when he first took the position. He would sit with students during lunch and help them with financial or academic problems, she said.

“That meant a lot to me that he would come and do that,” said Johnson, of Warner Robins. “When he first got there he was on fire, but now it’s like he’s just going through the motions of being president.”

But being president came with its share of challenges for Rivers. Most recently, the university announced last month layoffs for about 100 mostly temporary and part-time employees. The layoffs are part of a cost-saving strategy as the university grapples with a $3.8 million budget shortfall after a 5 percent cut in state funding and a 10 percent decrease in student enrollment.

Nearly a year ago, the university was given a warning by its accrediting organization concerning fiscal affairs. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission issued the warning Dec. 5, 2011 in relation to the staffing and training of employees in the office of general accounting, financial aid and support services, as well as finance office processes. The university’s next review is in December, when the commission will determine its accreditation status.

But Rivers is no stranger to overcoming obstacles. When he became president, he inherited a number of challenges, including budget issues, declining enrollment, aging facilities and the loss of accreditation for its teacher training programs, according to the news release.

During River’s tenure, the teacher training program was reaccredited, new buildings were erected and old ones were refurbished.

The Wildcat Commons -- a residential complex with seven buildings -- a science classroom and laboratory, a new football stadium and a new student center were constructed under Rivers’ leadership. Additionally, Huntington and Ohio halls were renovated, workers are constructing an addition to the Stallworth Laboratory Building and construction of a new family life center is planned to begin soon, the release said.

While enrollment has dropped over the past academic year, it has increased since Rivers became president. Back then, about 1,970 students were enrolled. This fall, about 3,568 students were taking classes at FVSU.

Stumbo remembers when Rivers coined the term “Communiversity” when looking to create projects to merge the university with the local community.

“I have never in my 16 years of office had a closer or more rewarding relationship than I have with Dr. Rivers,” Stumbo said. “You can’t help but be energized by his enthusiasm.”

When Johnson was writing her undergraduate senior class president graduation speech in 2009, she used a quote that Rivers gave her while sitting with students in the cafeteria. Words that she still lives by.

“‘In order to get to the mountaintop, you’ve got to first go through the valley,’” she said.

Information from Telegraph archives was used in his report. To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 256-9751. To contact writer Christina Wright, call 256-9685.

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