NCSU sacks head of alumni association

Staff WriterOctober 13, 2009 

— N.C. State University's interim chancellor has fired the head of the alumni association, saying the group was struggling financially and its membership had been stagnant for years.

Interim Chancellor James Woodward told the association's board of directors Friday afternoon about his decision to fire Dr. Lennie Barton, an associate vice chancellor.

"It's at risk financially," Woodward said in an interview Monday. "Most of that is not Lennie's fault, but not having a plan to address it is a failure of leadership."

Efforts to reach Barton were unsuccessful. Members of the alumni association's board declined to comment, including some who had written a letter in Barton's support last month when they heard the administration was considering firing him.

NCSU is the state's largest university, with more than 32,000 students. The alumni association's membership has been stable for a few years at about 22,000, Woodward said, even after Barton projected growth to 30,000 by fiscal year 2008-2009. The association has about 1,200 life members. The alumni association at smaller UNC-Chapel Hill, meanwhile, has about 70,000 members and 35,000 life members.

In a memo to Woodward released by the university, Barton wrote that, using a 10-point scale with UNC-Chapel Hill's alumni association at the top, NCSU deserved a 6 but was gaining. He said that NCSU's membership program was just 11 years old, compared to a century for UNC-Chapel Hill's.

Woodward said he was also concerned that the association has been using donations pledged for construction of the new Dorothy and Roy Park Alumni Center for operating expenses. When those pledges are all paid, he said, it's unclear how the association will make up the loss in its budget.

Barton is a former NCSU varsity golfer and has worked for the university for more than 30 years in various capacities. He has held his current post, associate vice chancellor for alumni relations and executive director of the alumni group, since 2003. His salary is $170,000 a year.

Woodward, who was chancellor at UNC-Charlotte for 16 years, called the decision the toughest call on a personnel matter he has ever made.

"Lonnie Barton has long served this institution, and he has made some truly notable contributions," he said. "We have been told in so many ways, though, that we need to demand the highest level of performance from this organization."

Letter defended Barton

Some alumni association officials think Barton was fired for other reasons. In a letter obtained by The News & Observer, seven members of the association's board of directors wrote Woodward on Sept. 9 and asked him to reconsider the idea of firing Barton. They wrote that someone had told them Barton was going to be fired because he hadn't censored a story in the fall edition of the alumni magazine about the Mary Easley scandal to ensure it didn't contain criticism of university leaders.

The story, an edited transcript of a roundtable discussion on the roles of campus culture, university governance and media relations in the scandal, was published recently. Participants include former UNC-system President Bill Friday and former NCSU faculty senate chairman James Martin, who has been a critic of administration behavior.

In the letter, the directors wrote they had been told that negative comments about the university administration by the panelists led the administration to feel that Barton should have anticipated such comments and kept some known university critics off the panel.

"At a time where the public, lawmakers, and alumni are clamoring for more openness, transparency and accountability in the administration of our public universities, we believe, if the above-stated facts are indeed correct, that to punish Dr. Barton for failing to censor voices critical of the University is in direct contravention of the best interest of the university," they wrote.

Barton, they wrote, had performed his duties "in an exemplary fashion." They said that firing Barton without consulting their board would not be consistent with "the spirit and letter" of the relationship between it and the university.

They attached a long list of association accomplishments under Barton, saying that it had raised $8 million for the alumni center and that Barton was personally responsible for raising $3 million of it.

In the letter, the board members noted several times that they had not been given all the facts. It's unclear whether any of them changed their views after Woodward gave them his reasons for the decision to fire Barton. Several who signed the letter declined to comment, saying that it was a personnel matter that they could not legally discuss.

Woodward's decision

Woodward, who is known for speaking frequently about the importance of openness and honesty, responded to questions from The N&O about the claim of censorship and provided e-mail traffic about the magazine story among administration and alumni association officials.

The Easley story, he said, played only a minor role in his decision, by bringing the association's problems to his attention after trustees and Barton's boss, Nevin Kessler, the vice chancellor for university advancement, began questioning the way Barton handled it.

Woodward said he didn't know about the plan for the roundtable until the day before it was held.

The association has a measure of independence from NCSU, and the editor of the magazine listens to suggestions and criticism from the administration on stories but doesn't have to follow them. Woodward said he asked for some relatively minor changes, some of it simply cleaning up numbers, and that some of the changes were made and others weren't.

The editor who handled the story, Rebecca Morphis, didn't return calls. Former faculty senate chairman James Martin said that the story reflected the nature of the conversation and that he had been happy with it.

Woodward said that the association will get an interim director, who will report directly to him.

"We've got to get some resources around this organization, and we need to invest in this organization," Woodward said. "We need to do it, and we need to know that investment is being used efficiently and in a way consistent with the association's stated goals."

jay.price@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4526

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