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Stanton reflects on tenure at ETSU

SAM WATSON • Jan 14, 2007 at 12:24 PM

JOHNSON CITY - After 10 years at East Tennessee State University's helm, President Paul Stanton says new academic programs, campus improvements and other initiatives keep him interested in the job.

"That's what sometimes makes me think I'd like to be here another 100 years, because these are the fun things," Stanton said in a recent interview about his tenure as president.

He has surpassed the minimum commitment he pledged to the post when he left ETSU's James H. Quillen College of Medicine and his medical practice in 1997 to assume the presidency.

But if retirement is on his radar, Stanton is not saying - at least publicly - when he will step down.

"I'm still sticking to my story - eight years minimum, 12 years maximum," he said.

After 12 years at the medical school, including 10 as dean, Stanton became ETSU's seventh president on Jan. 1, 1997. Reflecting on his decade as the institution's leader, Stanton said it had passed in a hurry.

"It's been to me 10 years of opportunity - 10 years that for the most part have been exciting and positive," he said. "It's been a lot of work and a lot of stress, but at the same time, it's been very rewarding."

Even as it has struggled with lean operating resources, ETSU has marked numerous milestones in the Stanton years. Highlights have included:

•Opening the $28 million Charles C. Sherrod Library in 1999.

•Overseeing digs at the Gray Fossil Site, an ancient lake bed discovered in 2000. The site contains the world's richest deposit of tapir fossils alongside the remains of rhinoceroses, elephants, sloths, red pandas and other creatures. ETSU's $10 million visitors center and laboratory is scheduled to open at the site this spring.

•Opening the medical school's basic sciences building, a $34 million state-federal project on the campus of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Mountain Home, in 2002. The building bears Stanton's name with that of former VA Director Carl Gerber as Stanton-Gerber Hall.

•Building a campus recreation and exercise center with $14 million in student fees. ETSU opened the center in 2002 and named it for longtime benefactor Wayne G. Basler in 2006.

•Raising more than $100 million in private funding in the Campaign for ETSU Tomorrow. Supporting academic initiatives, the campaign wrapped up in 2002.

•Developing the ETSU Honors College, a unit intended to promote excellence in academics, student research and international studies, in 2005.

•Remodeling the old campus library, a $1.2 million project that brought much-needed classroom, laboratory and office space to ETSU's College of Nursing and other units. ETSU opened the refurbished facility last fall and dedicated it as Roy S. Nicks Hall in honor of Stanton's predecessor.

•Creating the ETSU College of Pharmacy. Citing a shortage of pharmacists in Tennessee, particularly in rural areas of this region, ETSU officials and supporters launched a bid for the school in 2004 and eventually overcame the University of Tennessee's opposition to garner state approval. ETSU pledged to create and operate the school with private donations and tuition rather than state money. The first 72 students are scheduled to start classes Tuesday.

While Stanton was involved in the projects at various levels, he attributed the successes to state, federal and community partnerships and to other ETSU administrators and faculty and staff members.

"My philosophy has been and will be that you find the very best people you can hire, you give them the institutional profile and direction ... and you wind them up and get out of the way," Stanton said. "If I tried to be the only one to think of things, we wouldn't have much going."

As he succeeded Nicks, a former Regents chancellor who rejuvenated ETSU following tumultuous times 10 years ago, Stanton invited people to board "the ETSU Express," calling for community partnerships. He predicted that ETSU would grow to 18,000 students and become the Tennessee Board of Regents flagship university within a decade.

While the partnerships developed, his ambitious enrollment projection never materialized.

For most of his tenure, the state's public higher education institutions suffered from lean state budgets with annual cutbacks and mid-year reductions, limiting program growth.

"I don't think it was all bad," Stanton said. "We learned to prioritize better. We learned to cut a lot of fat. At the same time, it was hard to plan and support new initiatives if you were struggling to survive your old initiatives."

At the height of the fiscal crisis in 2003, Stanton faced a $7.48 million reduction in state funding. He trimmed the equivalent of 100 jobs, merged two colleges and eliminated the university's intercollegiate football program, which was eating about $1.1 million in state funding.

As finances have improved, the football decision - an issue that Stanton once feared would cost him the presidency - has come almost full circle. Last summer, he appointed a task force to study the sport's return after boosters lobbied him to rethink its viability. In December, he agreed to reboot the program in 2010 on two conditions: the completion of fund-raising goals and a student referendum to increase the university's athletic fees.

ETSU's enrollment, too, is on the upswing. Setting a record for the third year in a row, ETSU topped 12,500 students for the first time last fall.

"So, we're seeing the growth. It's just delayed growth," Stanton said. "But I think most of things we were looking at 10 years ago are coming to pass. Some of them take longer than others to get from the drawing board to consummation."

Stanton flirted with leaving ETSU twice. The first time was in January 2001 when the Regents offered him the chance to lead the whole higher education system as chancellor. He initially accepted the promotion, only to turn it down as state legislators criticized his proposed salary, saying he would not be a "political football."

In March 2004, he was nominated to lead the UT system, but he pulled out of the search, citing some 18 initiatives under way at ETSU he wanted to see to fruition.

"When I finished writing those down, I knew where I wanted to be. I wanted to be right here and get those done," he said. "I keep that on my desk so I can refer back to them to see how we're doing."

Over the last three years, ETSU has accomplished most items on his list. Others, such as the fossil museum, the medical school's new forensics center soon to open on the VA campus, the state's first College of Public Health and an athletic facilities capital campaign, are well under way.

As he did three years ago, Stanton hopes to see several initiatives finished before he leaves the president's office. His goals include restarting the football program; developing an academic and facilities plan for University School, a K-12 lab school operated by ETSU's Clemmer College of Education; and obtaining state funding for a proposed campus fine arts building.

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