Arcadia taking its time finding a new president

Posted: July 29, 2013

When Arcadia University opens for the fall term in August, it doesn't plan on having a president - not in name anyway.

In less than three years, the university in Glenside has had four leaders, and the board of trustees isn't rushing to look for a fifth.

After firing president Carl "Tobey" Oxholm III in May, the board announced that the chief operating officer, Nicolette DeVille Christensen, would run the school with full authority of a president, although not carrying that title.

The university has not launched a search for a new president or said that it plans to. The board will discuss the next steps at its meeting in September, trustees chairman Christopher van de Velde said.

"We don't think we're ready to start a presidential search at the moment," said van de Velde, general manager at the Awbury Arboretum in Germantown. "Right now, the place is being run very well by Dr. Christensen and the senior leadership team. We're not nervous about what's happening."

Not naming an interim president is "highly unusual," said Richard Ekman, president of the Washington-based Council of Independent Colleges, of which Arcadia is a member.

"I can only think of one or two other instances," he said. "The president has a very visible role at the beginning of the year, talking to students and setting the tone."

Bryn Mawr College, Cabrini College, and Community College of Philadelphia also announced the exit of their chiefs this spring. All named interim presidents.

'Very bad'

Eventually, Arcadia should name a president, because the board and the president have different roles, Ekman said.

"It would be very bad," he said, "if the chair of the board decided to run the place."

Arcadia, a 55-acre campus of about 4,000 undergraduate and graduate students, is known nationally for its emphasis on study-abroad programs.

It is counting on Christensen, who had been vice president and executive director of the college of global studies and was the senior member of the president's cabinet, to fulfill the duties of a president, van de Velde said. Christensen, who has an M.B.A. and doctorate and came to Arcadia in 2008 from New York University, was not available for comment.

The turnover in leadership - and the abrupt termination of Oxholm, a former Drexel University executive - has left some faculty uneasy.

"I think the faculty wants us to move beyond crisis management," said Alan Powell, an associate professor of communications. "We've really had a rough year."

The faculty, Powell said, passed a resolution urging the board to wait for a year or more before searching for a president.

"It's expensive," he said of the search process, "and the board of trustees has to figure out what they need in a president. We understand things have to be stabilized."

Pradyumna Chauhan, an English professor who has taught at Arcadia since 1967 - when it was Beaver College - said faculty members were surprised by the sudden removal of Oxholm and were left with questions.

"There is a sense of anxiety about our future arrangements," said Chauhan, the senior faculty member. "We do want strongly to have a wise, experienced, and successful person as a president, one who has proved [his or her] credentials elsewhere."

For two months after Oxholm's dismissal, the board offered no explanation. Oxholm had said he was cut off from university e-mail and told by the board's leadership that it objected to his returning to campus even to say goodbye.

Former board chair Margaret Wright Steele, co-owner of Perez-Steele Galleries and a 1980 Arcadia graduate, declined to elaborate on Oxholm's dismissal. Her term expired and she left the board July 1.

"Tobey's a very bright guy," said van de Velde, the new chair. "He's got a lot of energy and talent. It just wasn't a good fit."

An earlier exit

Oxholm wasn't the first Arcadia president to exit abruptly. Jerry Greiner, who led the school for almost seven years, announced in the fall of 2011 that he would retire at the end of that academic year, then suddenly departed in February, several months shy of the semester's end. He had become disillusioned with some board members who - without his knowledge - met with his vice presidents over projects he knew nothing about, a source close to the university said.

The board appointed James P. Gallagher, who had led Philadelphia University for 23 years, to serve as interim president. Gallagher was supposed to stay until Oxholm arrived, but also exited early, the source said.

Greiner declined to comment. Gallagher did not return calls for comment.

When Oxholm arrived at Arcadia in fall 2011, he began working on many fronts, including balancing the budget and upgrading labs and classrooms. Arcadia welcomed its largest freshman class in 2012. At Drexel, Oxholm was a disciple of the late Constantine Papadakis, and he brought that ambitious style to Arcadia. Some found it jarring.

"Arcadia's culture is a very gentle culture," said Powell, the communications professor.

But Oxholm was popular among students, who felt the loss deeply, Powell said. Arcadia sells itself as a family, he said, and "all of a sudden, Dad's gone."

Faculty and board members, however, emphasized that the school was in solid shape despite the executive turmoil. The board on June 7 adopted a five-year strategic plan to keep the school on course.

"The school is steady," Chauhan said. "Unfortunately, the administration has gone wobbly. I have no doubt it will straighten."

Contact Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or or follow on Twitter @ssnyderinq. Read her blog at campusinq.

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