Board rector, e-mails shed new light on removal of NSU's president

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by Nick Ochsner, 13News Now

WVEC.com

Posted on October 21, 2013 at 12:49 PM

Updated Monday, Oct 21 at 6:40 PM

NORFOLK -- Norfolk State University faces some big hurdles in the next couple of months, hurdles that helped lead to the firing of President Dr. Tony Atwater in August.

13News Now combed through hundreds of e-mails sent by members of the Board of Visitors that detail problems like a failing nursing school, lagging student enrollment and improper financial accounting.

Rector of NSU's Board of Visitors Tom Chewning is candid when talking about the issues facing the school.

"The university does have problems, they do have some concerns that they do need to fix," Chewning acknowledged.

That issue and others prompted a visit from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in September. The visit from SACS, which accredits the university, is an ominous sign that means the school could be sanctioned or even lose its accreditation. Without accreditation, a degree from Norfolk State University would be nearly worthless.

The SACS report on their September visit is due to be released in December. Chewning is hopeful the university will retain its accreditation.

"I think SACS is going to find what the public already, I think, well knows," Chewning said. "That is, the school has drifted away from some of the points of excellence that it should have at all times and that it's in need of some serious re-engineering of its whole operations."

E-mails obtained from the Board of Visitors show these issues and others are largely what led to the removal of Dr. Tony Atwater as NSU's president.

13News Now obtained hundreds of emails sent by members of the Board of Visitors in the months leading up to Atwater's removal.  The emails paint a picture of mounting frustrations from board members, starting around the same time as the school was preparing for its visit from SACS.

Click here to view several of the e-mails.

In an e-mail from Board member Lloyd Banks to other members, he writes, "The BoV can't be hands- off at the poorest performing university in the commonwealth and expect success."

Another e-mail, from then board member Henry Light, explains the SACS visit also sparked internal debate on the board.

Light wrote, "The SACS thing will be hard to deflect with a number of board members saying bad things about NSU."

But emails show the board started taking its frustration out on Atwater in mid-July, starting with another message from Lloyd Banks.

"I am embarrassed!" Banks wrote. "Both the media and the legislature clearly believes we need new leadership; either at the presidential level, or the BoV level is Atwater is extended. The wider opinion is that neither Tony nor the BoV will take ownership of our problems."

After mounting pressure, Atwater was removed as NSU President in August.

"I felt, and six other board members agreed, that we really needed somebody who was really more of an operations guy," Chewning explained his vote to remove Atwater as president.

Atwater was replaced by Eddie Moore, who has served in a number of high profile leadership roles, including time as Virginia State Treasurer and 17 years as President of Virginia State University.

"I think Eddie Moore brings a proven track record," Chewning said. "He kind of takes the leadership question of a public institution in Virginia off the table."

Moore took the job in September and although his title is interim president, he says he's prepared to stay for up to three years. He says it will take him that long to fix the university's financial books, iron out the SACS accreditation and repair relations with the school's faculty.

"I have recently lost a little sleep over the task ahead of me because I keep thinking of the issues that we have to satisfy," Moore said.

Moore says his first task is to bring the university's financial books into compliance. Accountants just recently completed an audit of the 2011 financial records. Audits from the 2012 and 2013 fiscal years are now on tap.

Moore says he's working 16-hour days, nearly seven days a week, to get NSU back on track.

Chewning says he's confident Moore's leadership will lead to brighter days for the university.

"I do think we need to right this ship, we need to have this school recognized for doing things right instead of doing things wrong," Chewning said. "I think it's an exciting place to be."

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