Rudnik: A Presidency in an Age of Austerity

| July 8, 2015

Perhaps, as the old adage goes, hindsight does give us complete clarity.


Nick Rudnik, Valdosta Today Opinion Contibutor

Leaders oftentimes find themselves defined by events outside their control. Take, for instance, some of our most celebrated U.S. presidents. Franklin Roosevelt’s tenure as president was marked by both a world war and the Great Depression. Lyndon Johnson’s administration has come to be viewed within a context of civil rights and social change. And Ronald Reagan’s years in the White House are wedded to a newfound sense of optimism in the waning years of the Cold War and unprecedented economic expansion.

In these cases we find thematic qualities inherent to each respective presidency. These leaders did not choose the world they were tasked to shape, but they did their best nonetheless with the cards they were dealt.

In April, Dr. William J. McKinney, VSU’s president, announced his resignation, effective July 1, 2015. His tenure as a college president has also come to be defined by events beyond his control, beyond the confines of his office. Make no mistake, McKinney announced his intention to resign amid great controversy. But in spite of the discordant and polemic rancor, it is the opinion of this author that when history has its final say, McKinney’s presidency will be viewed as a pivotal moment for Valdosta State University.

Bill McKinney took the reins of Valdosta State in an age of austerity. This theme is true across all of American higher education. Before he assumed office, there was the crash. Then came budget cuts. With budget cuts were furloughs and declining morale, particularly in the faculty ranks. None of these things could be changed singlehandedly by McKinney. The national economy was far beyond his control. And yet, under his leadership, in a time of crisis, McKinney initiated two years of faculty pay increases—a first since the beginning of the Great Recession.

Despite declining enrollment, McKinney championed Valdosta State, and was both audacious and unequivocal in his commitment to VSU faculty and students. In the first eight months of VSU’s first capital campaign, McKinney raised over $30 million of a $53.25 million five-year goal.

Above all, McKinney will be known, perhaps a century or more from now, for catapulting Valdosta State into the twenty-first century. Under his leadership we’ve seen critical reorganizations, investments in more technology, and, yes, more administrative positions. Perhaps this makes me a bit contrarian, but for those in the VSU community who opposed a new president’s chief of staff position, show me an institution of comparable size that limits a president’s office staff to only two employees. Frankly, you simply can’t.

Now, regular followers of my column have likely seen many an outspoken diatribe against several of the issues that now rest at the center of the controversy surrounding McKinney—Ben Carson, Sigma Nu, and campus crime, to name only a few. Among those, only Ben Carson still leaves me seething. But again, this controversy was largely beyond his control.

My career as a student at Valdosta State has wound to a close. Looking back with the clarity of hindsight, I now almost pity the bellicose, combative faculty who organized the no confidence campaign. For it’s entirely feasible that any new administrator who assumes the presidency will demonstrate more tenacity in “modernizing” university administration and hierarchy.

Put simply, it’s far easier to throw stones than use them to build something great. I know this all too well from my weekly “bully pulpit.” In McKinney’s case, in a time of grim asceticism, he was given very few stones, but was able to use them as best he could. Take the breathtaking addition to North Campus, the health sciences building, a structure ready and waiting to meet the needs of our next century of students. In the spirit of our university’s prevailing building nomenclature—that is, naming buildings after former presidents—perhaps McKinney Hall on North Campus is in order.

Weighing both the good and the bad, we lost a president who, despite adversity from an acrimonious faculty and a few bad decisions, has done far more good for our institution than anything else.

For through it all, he is a leader who met an age of great challenge and change head on, unafraid, undeterred. A century removed from now, it is my earnest hope that the VSU community of the future will remember his leadership, his reforms, and his vision for VSU in the information age. I also hope that we’ll remember him as both a good and honest man; one who refused to abscond to the malice and aversion inherent to some of his harshest critics.

In closing, thank you, Bill McKinney, for your leadership in this time of crisis, this era of great change and discontent. You’ll be sorely missed.

rudnik-thumbnailNicholas A. Rudnik is currently pursuing a degree in political science with a concentration in American politics at Valdosta State University. Previously, he’s served as a congressional page in the U.S. House of Representatives during the 111th Congress and in the Office of U.S. Congressman Sanford Bishop. Further, Nick has served on staff at an institutional interest group, the Association of American Law Schools, in Washington and has worked in the private sector. He has presented his research, focused primarily on congressional parties and elections, at regional academic conferences and hopes to pursue a graduate degree in political science. Nick is currently completing two manuscripts relating to southern congressional elections and judicial decision-making in the area of campaign finance; he can be contacted via e-mail at Follow Nick on Twitter: @NickRudnik.

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