University of Akron President Luis Proenza announced Wednesday what long has been rumored: He is stepping down.
Proenza, 68, will remain president through June, take a yearlong sabbatical, then return to UA as a full-time professor and president emeritus.
Proenza received applause after a short speech at a university trustees meeting, in which he said he is not walking away from 15 years at the helm, but rather continuing his commitment to UA and offering his assistance throughout the leadership transition.
“I hope that all of us will indeed look at this as an opportunity for seamless transition,” Proenza said. “For the university community, we’ve got a lot of work to do, so let’s roll up our sleeves and not lose a single moment.”
Proenza marks the third president of a tax-supported university in Ohio to announce a departure in as many months.
Kent State President Lester Lefton said in April he also will retire in June 2014; Ohio State’s Gordon Gee announced in June that he would retire in July and become a full-time OSU professor.
UA Trustee Chairman Richard Pogue said there was careful deliberation in reaching a mutually beneficial end to the longest university presidency in Ohio.
“I don’t need to remind the board that we spent a lot of time on this because we want to do it right,” Pogue said, adding that Proenza has been considering stepping down for at least two years.
Pay raise in January
A contract defines Proenza’s relationship with UA after he leaves the presidency.
Proenza will continue to be eligible for three bonuses Dec. 31 totaling $125,000. The retention bonus ($25,000) and performance bonuses (two totaling $100,000, for meeting short- and long-term goals) are part of his previous contract.
Trustees also agreed to increase Proenza’s base salary by 18 percent from $425,250 to $500,000 starting Jan. 1. Proenza will earn that through the last six months of his presidency and during his one-year professional leave.
When he returns to UA as a full-time, tenured faculty member July 1, 2015, he will make 65 percent of his $500,000 base, or $325,000.
In addition, Pogue has agreed to raise $1 million from trustees and other supporters to fund the newly announced Trustees Chair in Higher Education and the Economy for Proenza.
The $1 million in donated money is expected to produce $50,000 a year starting in 2016 for Proenza, bringing his salary to $375,000. He will hold the chair for the duration of his new contract, 10 years. It will be named for him when he retires.
Proenza’s new salary will be about 30 percent more than the highest-paid UA faculty member, prompting concerns from union leadership.
“They’re more than happy to give their pot of people quite lucrative packages, so that never sits well with the faculty,” said Stephen Weeks, president of the Akron chapter of the American Association of University Professors.
The AAUP’s contract with the university expires in December.
Pogue said Proenza’s new contract will cost the university $3 million less than if his existing contract had remained in effect.
Under his previous contract, Proenza would have been entitled to 80 percent of his base salary as president when he became a full-time faculty member. At a base of $500,000, he would have received $400,000 a year for as long as he chose to remain on the faculty.
Now he will earn $75,000 less in UA money a year, will forgo bonuses in 2014 and 2015 and will be employed for a set period — 10 years, to 2016, after he returns from his sabbatical.
“We charted it all out. There will be savings every year of a significant amount,” Pogue said.
The AAUP president, however, said “more lucrative” provisions removed from Proenza’s contract shouldn’t be touted as savings, but rather an example of exorbitant spending.
“Maybe the original promise was over the top,” Weeks said of the previous contact, negotiated in 2009. “That just shows the kind of contracts they negotiate. These are very sweet deals for these upper administrators.”
Search for successor
Though only high-level administrators and deans were privy to Proenza’s announcement prior to the public meeting, the campus had been rife with rumors for weeks that he was about to quit or step down.
Many rumors suggest that Jim Tressel, the former Ohio State football coach who is UA vice president for strategic engagement, would be named interim president or president when Proenza departs.
“He’s probably going to be a candidate, but that’s about all we can say at this point,” Pogue said in an interview Monday. “We’re not in any rush.”
Trustees will hold a special meeting in September to outline the steps to finding a new president. Often that includes hiring a search consultant who can make discreet inquiries to potential candidates who meet the university’s criteria.
The new president is expected to begin work on or before Proenza leaves the presidency June 30, although Proenza has promised to make himself available after that date.
Proenza has been UA president for 14 years, the longest continuing public college president in Ohio.
He came to UA in 1999 from Purdue University, where he was vice president for research and dean of the Graduate School. Before that, he worked at the University of Alaska.
Landscape is legacy
Expectations were high for the new president. He will be asked to “achieve all the things that have never been achieved except by one person in history: Jesus,” Frank Kelley, then dean of the College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering, jokingly told the Akron Beacon Journal at the time.
Proenza, who was born in Mexico, quickly emphasized UA’s expertise in polymers and the sciences and began to label UA as Northeast Ohio’s public research university.
But the biggest challenge he might have faced initially was a plunging enrollment and a drab campus of 1960s-era buildings.
Proenza and trustees developed a plan to invest $200 million in improvements, and kept going. By the time they were through, the university had invested $620 million to create a modern campus with new buildings, green spaces, an Engineering Research Center and UA’s first on-campus football stadium in decades.
“Physically, the place is totally different,” Pogue said. “That inspires in people a feeling of quality and seriousness of purpose.”
Proenza says the campus’ transformation might be his biggest accomplishment in the eyes of the public.
But he also was instrumental in many projects to boost the Northeast Ohio economy, he points out, from establishing the nonprofit University Park Alliance that is working to restore the neighborhood around UA; the Austen BioInnovation Institute, a research and development initiative with area hospitals; and the Research Foundation, which has spun off more than 50 companies, he said.
The most notable academic addition was a bachelor’s degree in corrosion engineering, the first of its kind nationwide. The program attracted millions of dollars in federal grants to study corrosion on bridges, ships and the like for the military and U.S. government.
All told, the varied improvements helped to build enrollment from 22,278 in 2000 to a peak of 29,699 in 2011.
“I hope that all of you will recognize that this university arguably is Akron’s and Northeast Ohio’s most significant asset for economic prosperity. And I hope you’ll treasure that and develop it,” Proenza said Wednesday.
He has played a role on the national stage. Currently he’s on the executive committee for the Council on Competitiveness and its Manufacturing Competitiveness steering committee and chairs its Regional Leadership Institute steering committee.
News at UA has not been universally positive, however.
The university also has one of the highest rates of part-time — or adjunct — faculty among Ohio’s public universities. Only Youngstown State has a higher rate of adjunct employment.
Meanwhile, UA has one of the lowest graduation rates in the state: Only 40 percent of students finished their degree work in six years, which is the typical framework for completion nationwide.
UA also has a funding shortfall for 2013-2014, due in part to declines in enrollment last year and this fall, while many state universities saw growth.
As a result, the university has taken drastic actions to cut spending, from freezing wages to reducing departmental budgets to laying off or leaving open about 100 positions.
Trustees will meet in October to consider a revised budget that reflects what is projected to be a bleak enrollment picture this fall, and that might spark further employee dismissals.
Beacon Journal staff writer Doug Livingston contributed to this report. Carol Biliczky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3729.