Athens State board wants long-range plan in place before searching for new president

Nov. 24—Athens State University's trustees want to develop a long-range mission and strategy for the school before they determine the qualities they want in a new president, the board chair said.

Philip Way, the school's president the past 3 1/2 years, resigned earlier this month effective Dec. 31.

"The board will discuss where we want to go from here," said Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, the board chair. It'll determine "what the 21st century looks like for us in higher education in Alabama and the Southeast. I would think we might look at some consultants for that to plot a course for the university over the next 10 to 20 years and beyond based on what we know today."

Orr said the board needs to consult with those in higher education to see what the mission is for Athens State so it can remain vibrant and strong in the future.

"The school is at a critical juncture and because of that I don't think it's prudent to rush out, hire a search firm," he said. "I don't think it makes a lot of sense to go immediately ... hire a president as quickly as we can. I think first of all we need the best long-term strategy that we need to have for the university and then find somebody that fits that strategy."

He said the board of trustees will select an acting president during its next meeting in January. Catherine Wehlburg, the university's provost and vice president for academic affairs, will fill the duties of president between Way's departure and the appointment of an acting president.

In a letter to Athens State's faculty and staff announcing his departure, Way said he wants to "pause."

"I need to rebalance my life, give more attention to conventional faculty activities as well as family and personal pursuits," he said. "I want to ponder the next phase of my life."

Way said he will maintain his tenure at ASU and has agreed to stay on call as a special assistant to the board to help with the transition in leadership.

Way said he has done what he aimed to do and made progress despite COVID.

"Approximately 20 new degree programs, especially at the graduate level, are being or have been introduced in response to regional employer needs and student interests," he said. "Increased engagement of students in experiential learning is preparing them for the labor market."

Among the new degrees, the school offers a Bachelor of Science in Nursing after starting its nursing program in the fall of 2021. Athens State began offering five new degrees this fall — a bachelor's degree in aerospace systems management, and master's degrees in accountancy, computer science, cybersecurity and interdisciplinary studies."

Way said the school has also increased flexibility in online programs and offered more of them. He said there have also been innovations in fundraising and grant seeking.

"A new brand identity and marketing partnership have aided the recent growth of enrollments in Alabama and other states," he said.

Way's first semester, fall 2019, there were 2,945 students enrolled taking 27,798 credit hours. This fall semester, his last, there are 2,895 students enrolled taking 26,534 credit hours.

Way said he does not know what the future holds and whether he will take a position at another college.

"I have been approached about other opportunities, but I am going to be patient and enjoy a normal life while I mull over what to do next," he said.

Way said he has spent the last decade at two universities as a provost, an interim president, and a president.

"It's time to pass the baton," he said. "It's a long race."

Before landing at Athens State, Way was a provost and vice president for academic and student affairs and served for almost a year as the interim president in Pennsylvania at Slippery Rock University.

Prior to that, he was senior associate dean of arts and sciences, provost for undergraduate programs, and concurrent professor of the school of business at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Way spent more than 20 years at the University of Cincinnati, first as an assistant professor, and then mostly as a faculty member in the department of economics.

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