Towey resigning as St. Vincent president

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H. James Towey, a former high-ranking official in the George W. Bush administration who is resigning the St. Vincent College presidency in June, said his departure a year before his contract ends reflects earlier-than-expected achievement of his goals.

Mr. Towey, 53, said persistent criticisms by some faculty and alumni had "zero" impact on his decision. He said he continues to have the full support of the board of directors.

Mr. Towey cited gains in areas including enrollment and fundraising, and he said St. Vincent during his 39 months in office had deepened a commitment to its Catholic Benedictine identity.

But he also conceded in an interview yesterday that he might have done some things differently.

"I made some rookie errors when I started at St. Vincent," he said. "I may have moved a little too fast. I could have communicated better to the faculty what I was doing and what my role was."

"The reality is when you're a change agent -- and that was my mandate -- you're not going to have a long shelf life as president," he said. "In my first year, I changed out four vice presidents."

Mr. Towey said the college will pay him through the end of the academic year. After that, his future is undecided.

"I have no plans right now. We'll be looking at some options," he said. " I am doing this now because in academia, this is the season of searches. They typically take place (starting) in September and October."

Yesterday morning's announcement by e-mail, and a midday faculty meeting at which Mr. Towey discussed the departure, capped a journey that brought the former White House adviser to his first academic job as head of the roughly 2,000-student campus in Latrobe.

Mr. Towey, who was President George W. Bush's director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, became St. Vincent's 16th president on July 1, 2006.

During his tenure, enrollment grew from 1,768 students to 1,984, and total funding commitments increased from $16.5 million to $23.6 million. Among successes cited by the college was its largest-ever project, the $30 million Sis and Herman Dupre Science Pavilion.

The college yesterday released statements of praise from board of directors Chairman Christopher J. Donahue and Archabbot Douglas N. Nowicki. The archabbot said Mr. Towey "did an outstanding job as president."

But early on, some staff and alumni were angered by a string of employee departures. Tensions intensified in 2007 after Mr. Bush accepted Mr. Towey's invitation to deliver that year's spring commencement address.

Detractors, who saw Mr. Towey as heavy-handed, were mostly unwilling to put their name to criticisms, but early last year three-quarters of the tenured faculty broke ranks. The 32 faculty co-signed a confidential letter to the school's board of directors, the text of which was obtained by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and later verified as accurate.

The letter asserted that Mr. Towey's actions were creating "an unparalleled crisis." It accused Mr. Towey of, among other things, sanitizing the self-study portion of the school's re-accreditation effort and using controlling tactics in the search for an academic vice president.

"The faculty at St. Vincent is gravely concerned about the current president's systematic and pervasive disregard for collegiality and shared governance," the letter began. It said that "much damage has already been done to the academic integrity" of the college.

Mr. Towey attributed the complaints to growing pains of a school making progress.

"I certainly wish Mr. Towey the best in all of his endeavors, and I think I had better leave it at that," said Susan Mitchell Sommers, a member of the history faculty, former head of the elected faculty council and one of the letter's co-signers.

"I think in some ways it's probably premature for me to make any judgment of what his presidency was. That becomes clear a year or two after a person leaves," said Matt Fisher, the current faculty council president who also signed the letter.

Correction/Clarification: (Published Oct. 16, 2009) St. Vincent College President H. James Towey served as director of the Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives in the George W. Bush White House. He attended Cabinet meetings but was not a Cabinet member. This story as originally published Oct. 15, 2009 about his resignation from St. Vincent misstated his role.

Bill Schackner can be reached at or 412-263-1977.


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