A day after the resignation of President Ivelaw Griffith, the Fort Valley State University community pointed to personality clashes that may have contributed to his downfall.
Reasons for the resignation -- short of two years in office -- were not released by officials with the school or the University System of Georgia. On Thursday, students said they were surprised by the news that Griffith is stepping down, but they did not seem upset about it.
Most of them indicated that a change is needed.
“He didn’t get to know the students at all. He was not a people person at all,” said Cameron James, a junior, as he sat on a bench outside a dormitory with several other students. “He didn’t really make a contribution that we would miss.”
Hadiyah Walker, a junior, spoke favorably of Griffith, adding that it was “kind of crazy” that he was leaving after less than two years.
“People liked him,” Walker said. “He tried to come in and do a lot of changes.”
She said she has heard rumors about why Griffith is leaving, but said no one really knows what prompted his departure.
Some members of the alumni base echoed James’ sentiment, according to Harry Ross. Now a political analyst in Atlanta, Ross graduated from Fort Valley State in 1969 with a bachelor’s degree in social sciences.
Besides not seeing any real plan for growing the school’s attendance, Ross said Griffith had rubbed some people the wrong way in his fundraising and recruiting ventures.
“He had no good interpersonal relationship skills,” Ross said. “He was turning people off everywhere he goes speaking for Fort Valley State.”
Ross said he thought the resignation wasn’t completely voluntary, either.
“He was doing a horrible job,” Ross said. “I knew it was just a matter of time before the chancellor and the board ousted him.”
But others offered a counter view of Griffith and the job he has done.
Bryant Culpepper, a former Superior Court judge who now handles mediation and arbitration cases, was on a screening committee that submitted a short list of candidates for the president’s job to the Board of Regents in 2013. Griffith eventually got the job.
“He was -- and is -- a brilliant man, a good man, with a great family, someone who tried to make the institution better,” Culpepper said. “He hit the ground running and worked hard at it. He was really beginning to make a difference. ... He was beginning to turn the corner.
“Everything I know about him says he’s a good man.”
Griffith, he said, “was open to ideas and had some big ideas.”
During his tenure, Griffith placed an increased focus on the university’s international presence through the work of a Global Initiatives Council. The goal of the council was to increase the university’s international programming to help draw students from all over the world.
Recent student numbers were up. There had been an increase in the number of applicants, for example, and for the projected enrollment for the fall 2015 semester, the college noted last month.
The university had 3,725 applicants for that semester, compared to 515 applicants at the same time last year. Also, 547 students had already been admitted for fall 2015, compared to 138 students at the same time last year for the fall 2014 term. (The school has about 2,465 students enrolled this spring.)
“This increase in applications can be attributed to several key measures we have undertaken, including more aggressive recruitment, with more recruiters, by boosting our traditional and social media marketing, and having a strong presence in places and at events with prospective students,” Griffith said in a statement the school released.
A part of the school’s effort was an international culture festival and soccer exhibition last August, but that event was an example of how out of touch the president was with the community, Ross contended, who also noted that Griffith chose to live in Warner Robins instead of Fort Valley.
“He put a lot of people off when he put so much emphasis on soccer,” he said. “He was trying to make soccer the No. 1 sport on campus. All they want down there is football.”
The focus on international students also drew the ire of Fort Valley resident Otha Kincy. A 1972 Fort Valley State graduate and past employee of the university, Kincy addressed the practice in a letter to the Telegraph in September.
He said Griffith seemed to focus on students from elsewhere at the expense of Middle Georgia residents.
“Some people know Griffith likes to quote distinguished personalities. Well, Booker T. Washington, a great leader and president of prestigious Tuskegee University, said, ‘cast down your bucket where you are,’” Kincy wrote in the letter. “The president needs to cast his bucket down in Fort Valley and surrounding communities, learn better the culture of the South and start working with all Georgians, regardless of race, color or creed, to move Fort Valley State University to the next level.”
That international focus may also have played a role in a steep increase in travel expenses. According to financial reports from the 2014 fiscal year, he spent $7,388 on travel, more than his predecessor, Larry Rivers, spent in the previous two years combined.
Griffith did direct energy toward international recruiting, Culpepper said, but he also did plenty of outreach in Middle Georgia, visiting high schools across the midstate. Griffith, he said, was at Veterans High School in Houston County recently.
With the international outreach, the school was making an effort in part to “match up what (those students) needed with what they teach” at Fort Valley State, especially agricultural fields of study.
Griffith was not in his office Thursday. Pamela Berry-Johnson, the school’s communications director, said Griffith is out of town this week. She wasn’t sure when he will return, but she said he will serve until his official departure date of June 30.
She declined any further comment beyond the Board of Regents announcement Wednesday that Griffith is stepping down.
Most students said Rivers, Griffith’s predecessor, was much better about engaging students and faculty. They said they would see Rivers regularly around campus, but Griffith did not get out that much.
“Our last president, he was more active and would walk around, but Dr. Griffith, he really didn’t,” said Lincoln McTaggart, a senior. “The students felt like Dr. Griffith was more isolated.”
Whatever students thought about Griffith, all of them interviewed Thursday said they were surprised by the announcement and wanted to know more about what prompted it.
“A lot of us are just wondering why,” said Erin Simon, a senior. “We are waiting for an explanation.”
-- Staff writer Oby Brown contributed to this report.