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Norfolk State Revamps Vetting Process in Search of Stability


A board meeting is scheduled for Sept. 13, where discussion will include establishing the search committee and identifying an interim president in the wake of Dr. Tony Atwater’s sudden dismissal.A board meeting is scheduled for Sept. 13, where discussion will include establishing the search committee and identifying an interim president in the wake of Dr. Tony Atwater’s sudden dismissal.

In an effort to restore confidence in leadership and squelch rumors at Norfolk State University, Board of Visitors Rector Thomas N. Chewning said new standards will be put in place to improve the screening of presidential candidates.

On the heels of the removal of University President Dr. Tony Atwater, Chewning told Diverse the board will establish new criteria and requirements in the presidential search including transparency in background findings and input from stakeholders including faculty, alumni and community, as well as hiring a search consultant to aid with the process.

An interim president will be identified while the search committee is assembled and the search for a new president is conducted. Dr. Sandra DeLoatch, the university’s provost and vice president for academic affairs is temporarily serving as acting president.

A board meeting is scheduled for Sept. 13, where discussion will include establishing the search committee and identifying an interim president who will be able to manage the university while the board conducts an in-depth search for a new president.

Chewning said he wants to bring stability back to the university.

“The search committee will take as long as it needs to find the right person to run the school,” Chewning said. “They will be held to a pretty high standard. The committee will be able to take their time if we have a good interim president in place. We want a [presidential candidate] who can command the attention of the community as well as stakeholders, and who can tackle the problems in front of us.”

Atwater’s firing was attributed to a number of problems including failure to complete audits on time, low graduation rates, low student test scores in the two-year nursing program and communication issues with the board.

However, concerns also have been raised about how closely Atwater’s background was checked before hiring him for the post after a vote of no confidence by faculty at his previous job as president of Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

“I’ve heard concerns about the process in which Dr. Atwater came in,” Chewning said. “I wasn’t there.

“That’s one of the reasons I want to make the process more transparent. Some people knew about the vote of no confidence from the faculty. They may have voiced their opinion or some people wanted him in.

“Only five of the current 13 board members were there at that time. Eight of us did not participate in the search or the vote. We don’t know what choices they had. I haven’t asked them that question. If I had a candidate with a vote of no confidence, absolutely it would be a strike against them.

“I know faculty is not always the easiest group to please, but they are an important group. You need faculty buy in. They don’t have to think you are the greatest person in the world, but you have to be respected, and it’s the job of the president to gain their trust. From where I sit, it would be a prime factor and a fatal flaw.”

Chewning said he was appointed to the board of visitors in the summer of 2011 and had his first board meeting in September, a few months after Atwater was hired.

“I’m the person to deal with where we are now, not how we got here.”

Atwater was hired after the previous president, Carolyn Meyers, was forced to resign in June 2010 after serving four years of a five-year contract. Atwater, who had been president since 2011, has stated that he got off to a rocky start with the university when the board not only hired him but also took on an executive vice president with a two-year contract, making it difficult for him to establish his own administrative team.

Atwater was recently fired, but will continue to be an NSU employee. He was appointed professor of communications with tenure when he was hired as president. Atwater was not available for comment.


Putting rumors to rest

For years, rumors have circulated about the possible merger of Norfolk State and Old Dominion, a cross-town rival university. The assumptions may seem feasible with NSU struggling and with Old Dominion increasing its number of African-American students.

Atwater fanned the flames through parting suggestions that he was aware of discussions of a merger from reliable sources.

However, Chewning said he wants to put an end to the rumors.

“I have spent a fair amount of time with committees dealing with funding and other decision makers and there is absolutely no truth at all that there is serious discussion about a merger or that anyone is entertaining the idea.

“The two universities are close to each other. It’s a great question that comes up from time to time. It is already well debunked. It’s unrealistic, and I can’t give any credit to it at all.”

Finding the right president

The new president will have to manage a university faced with a broad range of problems, including high turnover among administrators, declining enrollment and poor graduation rates. NSU’s six-year graduation rate is reported to be the lowest among Virginia’s four-year public colleges.

The university has struggled to complete a financial audit for the 2011 fiscal year, and this summer, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools said it found evidence of “significant accreditation-related issues” at NSU.

Norfolk State’s nursing program has had its own challenges. In March, the Virginia Board of Nursing issued an order barring NSU from accepting new students into its associate degree nursing program because of graduates’ low passage rates on the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX), a national licensing exam.

Passage rates are required to stay at 80 percent or higher. The rate has steadily fallen short and was 54 percent last year. In 2010, 76 percent of NSU’s associate degree graduates passed the test. In 2011, 48 percent passed. NSU also offers a bachelor’s degree in nursing. That program has higher passage rates and is not subject to the admissions freeze.

The nursing program’s chairwoman Bennie Marshall announced this week that she will step down and stay on with the department as a professor. “When you’ve done all you can, and things aren’t changing as they should, you make a personal decision,” she reportedly said. “Given everything that’s going on. … I think it’s the best time, and it’s for the good of the university.”

The university has attributed the nursing program’s problems to high faculty turnover and financial hardships among students.

Chewning said the board wants to avoid past mistakes by implementing a thorough search process that will offer the new president the best opportunity for success, while making sure the university finds the candidate with the right fit for the job.

“It’s regrettable that university presidents turn over as quickly as they do,” Chewning said. “It never helps to have short-term presidents.

“I would be looking for someone who doesn’t mind being publicly scrutinized,” he said. “Once we are at the end of the process, we would want candidates who have the courage of their conviction to get their name out there and have all affected groups be able to see them and ask questions.

“The board needs to be ultra careful and do an exhaustive search. We want to choose the best person and not regret it. We don’t want any surprises that will impair their reputation with the public or on any basis.”

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