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Birge resigns from FPU

President to stay on through June

Franklin Pierce University President of five years James Birge announced Thursday he is resigning his post. Birge has said he will stay on through the next school year, in order to ease the transition process, according to a press release issued Thursday by the university.

“When I arrived in June 2009, the nation and the university were addressing the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression. Indeed, one of my first tasks was to cut more than $2 million from the then-current fiscal year budget,” Birge wrote in an email to the FPU community on Thursday, announcing his resignation. “The university had, under more optimistic financial conditions, leveraged more than $60 million in long-term debt, but had paid down only about $10 million of that prior to 2009; there was no developed culture of philanthropy; we were in the midst of a multi-year decline in new student enrollments, and we witnessed a staggering drop in family wealth among the demographics that were most likely to be in our student recruitment pool.”

Under his tenure, Birge wrote, long-term debt was reduced by $6 million; the school received the largest gift in FPU’s history; and applications to the school, class size and retention are all on the rise.

Despite the accomplishments, financial difficulties have continued to plague FPU as well as other small, private colleges throughout New England and elsewhere. Lebanon College announced Aug. 18 it will not hold fall classes, and is expected to close following years of financial hardship.

Late last month, word of the FPU’s lowered bond rating, by both Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s Investor’s Service, Inc., came to the fore. And the university is in discussions with the faculty union, Rindge Faculty Federation, having requested some concessions of the latter, according to Doug Ley, president of union.

A year ago in an open forum with the FPU community, Birge announced that the school’s Board of Trustees had directed him to work on improving fundraising efforts, Ley recalled Friday, noting that it appears not much has changed since then. “The fundraising and the revenue streams have to develop, and they have to develop fast,” Ley said. “There’s no finger to point. There’s many variables at play. I hope it can turnaround.”

Ley said he has enjoyed working with Birge, but feels more is needed at this time from the person in the office of the president. “He’s a good man, he’s personable,” Ley said of Birge. “But overall, the ground shifted very rapidly and the adjustments couldn’t be made.”

The university has been trying to reinvent itself as a technical, pre-professional school, but Ley said he’s not sure how that will sit with alumni donors, who want to remember the FPU of their day — the liberal arts institution it was for so many years.

James Terry of Southport, Conn., who is entering his senior year at FPU said Monday that Birge has taken a lot of heat from students about the school’s change in direction, which resulted in a number of majors being cut last January. But Terry, a communications major, says he never lost faith in Birge or the school. While the financial situation and curriculum cuts have some students thinking about continuing their education elsewhere, Terry said he isn’t one of them.

Terry will remember Birge fondly, noting the president never hid himself away, but instead put himself out there, talking with students and cheering them on. “He’s been a man of the people, and that’s how I would like him to be remembered. That’s how I will remember him.”

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