Fresno State president John Welty to retire in summer 2013

The Fresno BeeAugust 17, 2012 

John Welty, a fierce fund-raiser whose commitment to academics and research boosted Fresno State's profile, announced Friday that he will retire as president at the end of the academic school year.

His legacy, however, may be tainted by costly gender-equality lawsuits and athletic scandals.

Welty, who turns 68 next week, made the announcement during his annual fall address in the Satellite Student Union, where he predicted gloomy financial times for Fresno State unless California voters pass Proposition 30 tax initiative.

"There is no best time to retire," Welty told reporters after his hourlong speech to faculty and staff. "But this is a good time because we are headed in one direction or the other."

The news hit some especially hard.

"He's an incredible human being," said Luz Gonzalez, dean of College of Social Sciences.

Gonzalez nearly cried when she recalled how Latinos initially worried that Welty wouldn't embrace minority students. But once she met Welty, she said she knew he cared about all students.

"His entire life has been dedicated to education," Gonzalez said. "I will miss him until the day I die."

With tenure starting in August 1991, Welty is the longest-serving of seven presidents in Fresno State's 102-year history. He makes $299,000 a year -- the same salary he has made since 2007, university officials said.

Colleagues say he is a tireless worker who has made hundreds of speeches to various civic and religious groups, and shaken the hands -- and signed diplomas -- for nearly 83,000 degree-earners.

Under his leadership, Fresno State's enrollment has grown from about 19,800 to 22,400 today. But what Fresno State will miss most is his fund-raising -- $350 million, so far, according to university officials.

"That's a huge accomplishment" considering Fresno State lies in one of the poorest area of the nation, said Pete Mehas, a California State University trustee and former Fresno County schools superintendent.

During Welty's presidency, the university has added many endowed schools, including: Craig School of Business; Kremen School of Education and Human Development; Lyles College of Engineering; Lyles Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship; Jan and Bud Richter Center for Community Engagement and Service-Learning; and Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology.

Mehas said his favorite is Welty's creation of the Smittcamp Family Honors College program, the first of its kind in the CSU. Founded in 1997, the program gives scholarships to 50 top high school graduates each year. They take a series of specially designed honors courses, perform community service and interact in educational and social activities.

"John has been instrumental in stopping the brain drain," Mehas said. "He made sure that the Valley's top students remained here."

Athletics a sore spot

But Welty also has taken some heavy hits.

In March 1998, a "60 Minutes" television news show portrayed Fresno State as a university out of control because of point-shaving suspicions involving the men's basketball team in 1996-97 under then coach Jerry Tarkanian. No charges were ever filed. There also were NCAA rules infractions under Tarkanian and his successor, Ray Lopes.

Fresno State's image hit rock bottom in 2004 with the murder of Rene Shannon Abbott by former men's basketball player Terry Pettis. Pettis is serving a life prison term.

Welty's troubles didn't end there. Over the years, Fresno State was rocked by several costly gender discrimination lawsuits, including a $3.5 million settlement with former associate athletic director Diane Milutinovich in 2007; a $9 million settlement with former women's basketball coach Stacy Johnson-Klein the next year; and a $5.2 million settlement with former volleyball coach Lindy Vivas.

In an interview Friday, Welty acknowledge mistakes in the athletic department and said safeguards are in place to make sure they don't happen in the future.

Mehas said the ironic thing about the lawsuits is that Welty is a huge supporter of women athletes. Welty's fund-raising and commitment to students "helped him weather the storm," he said.

"He has more wins than losses and students have benefited," Mehas said. "That's the bottom line."

But Tom Holyoke, associate professor of political science at Fresno State, said Welty still has fences to mend. He said Welty created ill will among faculty members when a university task force this year proposed saving money by dissolving the College of Science and Mathematics, and moving economics from the College of Social Science to the Craig School of Business.

In his speech Friday, Welty acknowledged the rift, saying: "We had some questioning our commitment to shared governance."

He then asked faculty and staff for a second chance.

"I hope you will join me in reinvigorating our commitment to our core values of respect for differences and a commitment to responsible and open inquiry, dialogue and expression."

Time to move on

During his speech Friday, Welty praised the hard work of faculty, staff and students. In particular, he mentioned a team of Fresno State faculty and students who contributed this summer to the discovery of the "God Particle." Welty said physics professor Dr. Yongsheng Gao headed Fresno State's portion of "cutting-edge" research into "the origins of our universe."

He also touted Fresno State's national leadership role in water technology, water access and water management.

But Proposition 30 was at the top of his list.

"Truly, this is a perilous time and a crossroads for the state of California and its future," he said.

Fresno State's budget for the 2011-12 was $228.7 million. If Proposition 30 passes, Fresno State will essentially have the same budget for the upcoming school year, which begins next week, Welty said.

If Proposition 30 fails, it will trigger a $250 million cut to the CSU system. Fresno State will have to cut $13.2 million, making its budget about $215.5 million, Welty said.

The university's reserves will be tapped to make up for the loss state revenue, Welty said. But once the available reserves run out, tuition hikes, layoffs and other cost-cutting measure might have to take place, he said.

Adding to the uncertainty is the looming reduction of federal funds on Jan. 2, should Congress fail to act to balance, he said.

Because of the uncertainty , Welty said he began considering retirement about six months ago. "I am deeply grateful and honored to serve this community," he told reporters. "But it's getting time for me to do different things."

Once Welty retires, Fresno will lose a national leader, Mehas said.

Welty has chaired and served on multiple national boards, testified before Congress, and has served on CSU groups that address such things as strategic planning, gender equity and emergency credentials.

"John's commitment to serving students from underrepresented communities has changed many young people's lives forever," CSU Chancellor Charles Reed said in a news release.

Welty said Friday one of his big accomplishments was challenging students, faculty and staff to make volunteerism a way of life. The university community responded by donating 1 million hours of volunteer work, he said.

Student support

Fresno State alumni remember Welty as a champion for students, supporting them even through the university's most challenging periods.

Pedro Ramirez, a 2011 graduate and former student body president, said Welty's support helped him get through the media frenzy and heated debate that followed the revelation that he is an illegal immigrant and drove without a license. The student government last year launched an investigation into Ramirez, who resisted demands to step down as president.

Welty "definitely backed me up," Ramirez said Friday. "If I didn't have his support, I would have stepped down."

Ramirez, who quickly became the Fresno State poster boy for the DREAM Act, said Welty's support for higher education access for undocumented students set an example for other university presidents to work with students on immigration reform.

Welty also made time to meet with students, said Selena Farnesi, student body president in 2011-12.

"He worked very hard to understand the students' perspective on an issue before he made a decision," she said. "And that's not to say he always made the decision that I or other students always wanted ... but it was very, very apparent that he took the time to listen to our concerns."

Farnesi, who is now in law school in Sacramento, recalls a string of campus demonstrations a few years ago when students were upset over limited library hours. Welty held a public forum with students, who asked Welty where they were supposed to study when the library was closed. Welty invited students to study at his house, and later set up a study hall at his home with refreshments for students who came over to cram for a test.

"He was good on his word," Farnesi said.

Fresno State senior Matt Shupe, chief of staff and central valley vice chair for the California College Republicans and former leader of the Fresno State College Republicans, said Welty treated equally students of all political leanings and ideology. During the last year, the campus free speech area was frequently overtaken by Occupy protestors -- and Shupe was often there to stump his opposing views.

Welty encouraged political movements and student advocacy, as long as it was safe. Shupe said the Fresno State Republican group has "not run into any roadblocks -- neither us nor the Occupy movement."

But Welty, along with many CSU leaders, have come under scrutiny during the last year for their high salaries and perks such as car and housing allowances, while students grapple with tuition hikes and reductions in course offerings. Shupe said Welty dealt with the budget crisis "probably the best that he can do and knows how to."

Welty made his mark in establishing partnerships such as the Fresno Business Council, the Central Valley Business Incubator, the Central Valley Higher Education Consortium, the Regional Jobs Initiative and the Kenneth L. Maddy Institute. He also led the effort to build the Save Mart Center.

Academically, Fresno State became one of the first CSU campuses to offer a doctoral degree when it partnered with the University of California at Davis for a joint doctoral program in Educational Leadership. In 2010, 19 educators made history when they were awarded Fresno State's first independent Doctor of Education Degree in Educational Leadership.

This fall, two new doctoral programs will launch -- Doctor of Nursing Practice and Doctor of Physical Therapy.

Welty also pushed to get Fresno State into the Mountain West Conference. Two national championships also were attained during his presidency -- the 1998 women's softball team and the 2008 men's baseball team.

Welty appeared upbeat and happy Friday while talking to reporters. Once he retires next summer, he said he and his wife, Fresno State dean of graduate students Sharon Brown-Welty, plan to move to La Quinta, near Palm Springs, where they have a home, and teach at a CSU campus.

The Welty file

Born: Amboy, Ill.

Family: He and his wife, Fresno State dean of graduate students Sharon Brown-Welty, have five children and three grandchildren Education

Bachelor’s degree in Social Science from Western Illinois University, Macomb in 1965

Master’s in College Student Personnel Services from Michigan State University in 1967

Doctorate in Administration of Higher Education from Indiana University, Bloomington, in 1974 Career

President of Indiana University of Pennsylvania

Vice President for Student and University Affairs Indiana University of Pennsylvania

Admissions Counselor at Michigan State University

Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs at Southwest State University in Marshall, Minn.

Director of Residences, Associate Dean for Student Affairs, and Assistant Professor of Counseling and Student Development at the State University of New York, Albany

The reporters can be reached at (559) 441-6330, plopez@fresnobee.com, hsomerville@fresnobee.com or or @beecourts or @heathersomervil on Twitter.

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