A day after Colorado State University President Larry Penley suddenly resigned after five years of leading the state’s second-largest public university, the general mood among campus and community leaders was shock.
“I think the best way to describe the feeling around here today is surprise,” said CSU spokesman Brad Bohlander. “People were not expecting this.”
Penley resigned the presidency late Wednesday afternoon via a letter to the CSU Board of Governors’ chairman, Doug Jones. In his letter Penley said he was resigning to pursue other, unspecified leadership opportunities in higher education. In an interview with The Colorado Independent Wednesday night, Jones said Penley chose to leave CSU on his own accord and that he still had support on the board. But the unexpected nature of Penley’s midsemester departure has left the campus community abuzz with rumors — some that Penley was forced out, others that he wanted to lead a better-funded institution and might be offered a position in President-elect Barack Obama’s new administration. Whatever the reason, news of Penley’s departure dropped like a bomb on Thursday with many of his one-time critics offering him good luck on his new endeavors.
“I’m surprised at President Penley’s resignation,” said Sen. Steve Johnson, R- Larimer County, a Joint Budget Committee member who has been a vocal critic of Penley in recent years. “I appreciate all he has done to position CSU for a better future in difficult times for higher education in our state and his contributions will be long appreciated by alumni, students, and Colorado citizens.”
Transitioning to new leadership
With Penley’s resignation effective at the end of the month, all eyes have turned to CSU’s popular academic provost, Tony Frank, whom the board named as CSU’s interim president as it conducts a nationwide search. Although Jones said a full and thorough search will be conducted, he indicated that Frank, who has been at CSU for 16 years, will seriously be considered for the top job.
“Everyone has been very impressed with the leadership qualities of Dr. Frank,” Jones said.
A search committee will be formed in coming months, and a new president might not be announced until well into 2009. On Thursday CSU administrators said no immediate changes will be made to the university’s structure or operation under Frank’s leadership.
“Classes are continuing, school and business are proceeding as normal,” Bohlander said. “Dr. Frank is working hard to ensure a smooth transition for the students and the university and a large impact should not be felt by the students. Everything will continue as normal as that is Dr. Frank’s first order of business. I don’t foresee any major changes being made in the near future.”
The challenges facing the new leader of CSU in coming years will admittedly be tough as the state heads into an economic recession that will most likely significantly decrease the amount of public funding being made available to the state’s higher-education institutions. It took CSU nearly two fiscal years to recover from the 2002 recession, which forced major budget cuts to higher education in Colorado. With few options to increase state revenue since 2002, Penley increased tuition and mandatory fees to levels that raised concern among students and some longtime professors.
But with few options to fund higher education in Colorado beyond increasing student tuition, some state lawmakers said they are concerned CSU’s new leadership might be faced with tough decisions.
“Certainly, I wish the best for CSU’s new leadership because these are trying times for the state,” said Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins. “That could have been the impetus for President Penley to leave. He might have wanted to look for greener pastures in a state that will fund higher education at more sustainable levels.”
Bacon, who has been a Penley supporter over the years, said he is aware that some within the CSU community had concerns about funding shifts made by Penley since 2003 that redirected state funding away from academic colleges to be used for administrative functions and an enhanced effort to bring in more federal research dollars.
“The faculty and some students are suggesting that the university needs to invest more into the classroom and into the undergraduate education,” Bacon said. “I think that the new leadership should be aware of those concerns.”
Some longtime professors who were critical of Penley’s shift in funding priorities said Thursday they are hopeful CSU’s new leadership will bring a level of transparency to the university operations that some felt was not present under Penley.
“There must be more openness at every level of the university to the point that every (department) should be willing to have an open audit of the books to find out where the money is being spent,” said C.W. Miller, a biology professor who has been at CSU for 40 years. “The students, faculty and staff must feel more a part of this University rather than being lead or driven by a few.”