Two more resignations have occurred at the University Park Alliance, a nonprofit group working on the redevelopment of 50 city blocks around the University of Akron.
Jennifer Thomas, Akron program director for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, sent a letter of resignation to the 16-member UPA board of directors effective last Wednesday. In her letter, Thomas did not cite a reason, but said she was grateful for having had the opportunity to serve.
Separately, Carol Murphy, UPA’s chief of staff, is also resigning, effective Sept. 13. Murphy’s position was not eliminated, but she has joined the Akron Art Museum, she said.
That leaves one staffer, a secretary, at UPA while its board continues to reorganize after its former executive director, Eric Anthony Johnson, resigned in April and the $7.8 million funding from its major source, the Knight Foundation, was canceled. The Knight Foundation awarded UPA $500,000 to help with operational costs until January and invited the organization to reapply for a new grant.
UPA Chairman David James, who is also superintendent of Akron Public Schools, on Tuesday confirmed Thomas’ resignation. James said the board did not ask for the resignation and Thomas was leaving on good terms.
“Knight wants to make sure we’re doing things for the benefit of the UPA and not for the Knight Foundation,” James said. “Knight is still supportive of the overall mission of UPA. Locally, we’re the ones who have to come up with a plan on moving forward.”
The Knight Foundation funding was canceled because terms and deadlines related to real estate projects were not met. Board members have said they believe Johnson had overpromised or was overconfident in planning and execution of UPA projects related to the grant. Last May, Johnson said he assumed he had capable partners and that the work of UPA would continue to get support from Knight. Johnson was not available to comment Tuesday.
In an email response to questions, Thomas said because the previous grant to UPA has ended, “This is the appropriate time for me to step off the board while the UPA leadership considers the strategic course for the future.” A call to the Miami offices of the Knight Foundation was not returned.
James said he believes Thomas and the foundation believed it best for her to leave the UPA board, which includes CEOs and heads of major companies, government entities and institutions such as the University of Akron, Summit County, the Greater Akron Chamber, the Akron Beacon Journal and the city’s three hospitals.
“It brings up the larger question when you have support from the foundation and how involved should that organization be in the operations?” James said. “This helps shield them from the organization. Looking forward, that’s a lesson learned not to have their program officer on a board with a grantee.”
In an interview last month after it was learned the Knight Foundation was canceling funding, Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic said he was pleased the Knight Foundation was still committed to Akron with funding through the end of the year. But Plusquellic was also critical of Johnson and of Thomas, who worked closely with Johnson as the local contact from the foundation as well as a UPA board member, saying she should have known what Johnson was doing.
“Whatever happened and whatever contracts and money were appropriated, it’s just hard to imagine that somehow Knight wasn’t kept informed,” Plusquellic said, adding that many parties shared in the responsibility of what went wrong.
When asked to comment Tuesday regarding Thomas’ resignation, Plusquellic said through a spokeswoman, “I have never done this, but for the first time ever, I have no further comment.”
James said Thomas’ position will not be filled with another person from the foundation. Another person with ties to the foundation is currently on the board. Akron Children’s Hospital Chief Executive Officer and President Bill Considine is a UPA board member and a trustee of the Knight Foundation. Asked whether the Knight Foundation had any similar concerns about Considine being on the board, James said that was between Considine and Alberto Ibargüen, the Knight Foundation president and CEO. Considine was not available to comment on Tuesday.
Thomas said the Knight Foundation has no concerns about Considine on the UPA board.
Murphy, the UPA chief of staff, has been running the day-to-day operations of the organization and its community engagement with neighborhood residents and leaders.
She spent 11 years through 2007 as an administrator and director of special projects for the art museum. She joined UPA in January 2012.
“Leaving UPA is definitely bittersweet but I could not pass up the exciting opportunity to work with the new executive director, Mark Masuoka. My job will be to support and advance his vision in helping the museum take a more active role in the community,” Murphy said. “I will miss working with the Neighborhood Network and the community members most of all.”
James said the work being done by UPA in the transition period will be handled through member organizations and consultants.
UPA has also re-entered into a contract with Round River Consulting to help lead the community work. Round River last spring stopped work after it had not been paid for several months and had been told that all consultant work was being suspended by UPA.
“We definitely are re-engaged and we’re happy about that,” said Sue Lacy, Round River managing partner.
Asked whether previous bills had been paid by UPA, Lacy deferred to James, who said “the status of the previous billings and contract terms moving forward are some of the things” being worked out.
Overall, James said the UPA board needs to have a strategy session to come up with both short- and long-term goals and deal with its vendors. James said he did not anticipate the organization to be ready to reapply for a Knight grant by the end of the year, saying it could be the end of the first quarter of next year.
Thomas said the “Knight Foundation is a longtime supporter of core city revitalization and we understand how important it is to Akron’s quality of life to have a strong city that attracts and retains talent.”