Griffith says his FVSU reforms drew opposition

FORT VALLEY -- Until Wednesday, Ivelaw Griffith hadn’t talked publicly about why he’s leaving the president’s office at Fort Valley State University. But during a conference Wednesday, Griffith described some of his opponents as he worked to raise the university’s standards and fight an enrollment loss.

Griffith said that during his presidency he sent some underperforming employees home and received a call from a minister defending one of those employees as a good person. More people wanted their unprepared children to attend the university, but Griffith wanted the youth to get up to speed at two-year colleges first. And his talk of attracting Hispanic or international students also met resistance, he said.

“If you talk to some other people, it’s like I’m trying to bring Lucifer into the Valley by saying, ‘Let’s bring some international students,’” Griffith said during the HBCU­grow Conference, aimed at helping historically black colleges and universities increase their enrollment.

The conference attracted about three dozen people from historically black colleges and universities, primarily from the Southeast.

Neither Fort Valley State nor the University System of Georgia have said why Griffith resigned. He is scheduled to leave the university June 30.

On Wednesday, Griffith said Fort Valley State’s enrollment topped 4,000 students a few years ago, but many of those students simply weren’t ready for college, and the university wasn’t able to help them. Last fall’s enrollment dropped to 2,594, but most of those students were ready, he said.

Griffith said it wasn’t just a matter of how many students succeeded. Nearly all of the university’s students get financial aid.

“You take a loan, you don’t graduate, that loan does not go away,” he said. “It stays as an albatross around the neck of the student and the family. And so we took a decision in 2014 that we will not continue to hurt ourselves and hurt our students. Bringing them in so that you look good numbers-wise has consequences for retention, for graduation rate, for loan default rate.”

Fort Valley’s admissions director, Calandra Wright, said the university for some time had been admitting students who weren’t prepared without an appropriate support and remediation system in place. That changed, in part with the creation of a five-week intensive training program for students that started in the fall. In all, 28 not-quite-ready students entered the program, and 25 of them enrolled as regular students in the spring, she said.

Wright said she expects about 2,682 students to enroll this coming fall, up nearly 100 students from last fall. The school denies about as many applications as it accepts, she said. Wright said the loss of about a third of the students had effects throughout the university.

“Numbers tell a story, and these numbers truly tell a story of a deep, dark pit of declining enrollment,” she said at the conference.

Budgets and the university’s auxiliary support services were built around higher enrollment.

“Therefore the pit is getting deeper,” she said.

But having students who will succeed will help the school’s finances. The university also changed staff and procedures to create better customer service and better productivity.

“You are not going to be able to move in a positive direction if you have dead weight holding you down, people who are grumpy,” she said.

In his closing comments, Griffith said he was leaving with his integrity and had made a difference. Fort Valley State University must overcome resistance to thrive, he said.

“The critics of Griffith, the anti-change folks, may not very well appreciate some of the damage that they’re doing by resisting and opposing change,” he said.

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.