FORT VALLEY -- The college that sits just across the railroad tracks in this small town saved Larry Rivers life.
Thats one reason, perhaps the biggest reason, why Rivers wanted to become president of the institution. Now, as his resignation becomes official Sunday, the former president of Fort Valley State University reflects on seven years of leadership, which have been marked by many accomplishments and some challenges.
Some of the biggest accomplishments are the most visible ones. Under Rivers, about $185 million was pumped into new academic and activity buildings, new residence halls, a new stadium and a slew of refurbished buildings -- some of which were boarded-up eyesores when Rivers arrived as president.
Then theres the sharp increase in enrollment. There are new programs and a partnership with the city, which has fostered new roads and a stronger downtown presence. There was accreditation for the College of Education and reaffirmation of the universitys overall accreditation for 10 years.
There was a push to revive FVSUs financial health, a goal that was achieved, but not easily. A balanced budget came at the price of employee furloughs, which caused a heap of controversy.
And while finances are stable and alumni giving has increased, fundraising has been a challenge, especially when it comes to sports. Its a challenge that, if not overcome, could have a devastating effect on FVSU athletics and the university as a whole, Rivers said.
Still, the former president has faith in the students and alumni of the university that has been an important part of his life. Rivers is leaving to pursue his first love of teaching and research. He will teach history at Valdosta State University. He originally planned to serve as president for five years, he said, but stayed on for two more.
Its good to leave when youre in a good position, he said. I believe Im leaving a solid university to the incoming president.
Ivelaw Griffith, former provost of York College of the City University of New York, takes the helm July 22.
I wanted to return
Born near West Philadelphia, Rivers had begun drifting toward the wrong crowd when his aunt suggested he attend what was then Fort Valley State College. In his sophomore year, Rivers decided he would one day return to the college -- as president. If he had stayed in Philadelphia with the wrong group of friends, Rivers is certain he would have ended up hurt or in trouble.
Fort Valley saved my life, and I wanted to return to do what I could to help Fort Valley State, he said.
His high school teachers showed Rivers the importance of educators, and he decided to make his career in higher education. He was an adjunct professor at The University of Pittsburgh and held faculty and administrative positions at Florida A&M University before vying for the top role at FVSU in 2006.
Ira Hicks, a retired professor of agriculture education, was a professor at FVSU while Rivers was a student. Even though he never taught Rivers, Hicks knew of Rivers as an outgoing, determined young man. Hicks said he was thrilled when a former student was named president.
Ive been here with every president, all eight of them, Hicks said. In some instances, he surpassed everybody.
When he returned to Fort Valley, Rivers immediately began reaching out to the community and to the students. Rivers and his wife, Betty, attended 42 churches that first year, good places to not only meet people but also promote the university.
Enrollment increased from 2,176 students in fall 2006 -- the semester before Rivers arrived -- to 3,193 by spring 2013. Enrollment increased each academic year of Rivers tenure until it peaked at 3,896 students in fall 2011, according to the University System of Georgia. Enrollment has since dipped, following a trend of decreasing enrollment in colleges across the state and the nation.
A great connection
Students always have been a priority, Rivers says. He grins as he recalls students introducing him to their parents, many of whom were shocked that the university president wanted to meet them. He remembers asking male students to wear ties on certain days of the week. It wasnt a mandatory dress code but a way to teach them how to dress professionally. Many of the young men participated, and Rivers often gave ties to students who didnt have any.
The campus, its just different, Hicks said. Student morale is just about as high as weve had it.
Rashad Robertson remembers Rivers running with students on the campus track.
He would even come into the cafeteria and eat food with us, said Robertson, Student Government Association president. He really had a great connection to the student body. He wasnt that political figure that most presidents seem to be.
When he returned to campus as president, Rivers donated $100,000 to the scholarship foundation -- a gesture he hoped other alumni would mimic. And it worked. Alumni giving has increased from 4 percent to 17 percent, though Rivers says there is room for much improvement.
In fact, finances were at the top of Rivers to-do list at FVSU. When he took the job, he inherited some debt. The university had a $2.5 million deficit when he took office, and it had a $3 million deficit the year before, he said. Rivers worked to climb out of that hole, and from that point on, the university had a balanced budget and good audits, he said.
I said, If the state of Georgia can balance its budget, doggone it, Fort Valley State can balance a budget, he recalled.
But financial health came at a cost. Rivers eliminated some unproductive, costly programs, and many instructors had to pick up some extra classes. To avoid layoffs, Rivers enforced three-day faculty furloughs, a move that prompted 12 members of the faculty senate to issue a no-confidence vote in Rivers. He was out of town when the vote was taken.
When Rivers returned, he took his case to the entire faculty, and 87 percent voted to rescind the vote, stating they had confidence in his leadership.
I did not want to lay off anyone at that time, Rivers said, adding he would have been forced to lay off the lower paid employees who were scraping by on $7 or $8 an hour.
I had to do furlough days to balance the budget. ... I made some hard decisions.
And there were other issues Rivers encountered when coming to FVSU, particularly the appearance of campus. Old buildings were falling apart, the floors rotting and the windows boarded. The surrounding neighborhood was run down, with about 50 condemned houses.
About $185 million was pumped into capital projects during Rivers tenure, money that was garnered through bonds. The old buildings were renovated. Through a partnership with the city, a majority of those homes were demolished, and officials snagged a grant to improve the road along campus.
We have had an incredible journey together. He has done an incredible job, Fort Valley Mayor John Stumbo said. He invented the term communiversity, and it signifies that partnership we have had between the community and the university.
I am very concerned
Several other capital projects have been completed, including a new stadium. The stadium -- along with increased competition and reduced ticket prices -- was part of a push to increase attendance at home games.
But attendance and funds continue to wane, and Rivers is concerned for the future of FVSU athletics. If it continues on this path, the athletics program could drop to Division III or be cut altogether, Rivers said.
I think it will have a devastating effect on our programs, Rivers said. I believe academics and athletics go hand in hand. ... But I am very concerned about where were going.
Adding to the problem is a lack of alumni contributions and a new rule passed by the Board of Regents, which prohibits the university from using other auxiliary funds to give athletics a boost. Rivers has tried to garner outside funding, but its difficult to persuade businesses to donate when a majority of the alumni do not give, he said.
Its a problem Rivers hopes the next president can solve, starting with hiring a top-notch athletics director, he said.
Rivers suggested the new president meet a cross-section of the campus and local community, develop a relationship with the city, concentrate on retention and graduation, prepare himself to make tough decisions, review unproductive programs and consider new programs. Rivers supports a doctor of veterinary medicine program with a focus on large animals and an allied health sciences program, he said.
As a new leader comes in and Rivers prepares to leave, he will miss the university where his career came full circle.
But mostly, Im going to miss the students, he said.
To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 256-9751.