Cutler Hall

Cutler Hall on Ohio University’s Athens campus. File art.

Athens Mayor Steve Patterson and five other Appalachian mayors penned a letter to the Ohio University Board of Trustees earlier this month asking to have a say in who is selected as the institution’s president, arguing that weighty decisions made at the university have consequential spillover effects on their cities.

The letter, written by Patterson and signed by the mayors of Chillicothe, Ironton, Lancaster, Saint Clairsville and Zanesville, all locations of OU’s regional and main campuses, arrived in the Board of Trustees’ inbox days after university President Duane Nellis announced he was resigning from the role on June 30. The Board of Trustees are expected to appoint an interim president in the coming days before initiating a national search for Nellis’ successor.

The group of city mayors maintained that financial “turmoil” at OU, an institutional pillar of each leader’s community, had harmed their respective cities' tax bases and hurt residents after many lost jobs and businesses took financial hits, Patterson said.

"We do not lay the blame for these problems at the feet of any particular individual or entity. Rather, we acknowledge there are headwinds a four-year residential institution like OHIO’s Athens campus, and rural two-year institutions like the University’s regional campuses, face throughout the State of Ohio and our nation," the letter said.

“Those headwinds demand, we believe, a partnership between our communities and the University, to ensure we can craft a shared vision for economic development and education between the region and its largest institution and employer, OHIO."

Declines in undergraduate student enrollment, inaccurate budget projections and economic hardships associated with the pandemic, have all resulted in the university terminating hundreds of jobs in recent years.

Locally, fewer students enrolling at the university has also hurt Athens businesses that now struggle to keep doors open during summer months. Many also were devastated since few students lived in the area at the height of the pandemic.

“The destinies of OHIO, Athens, and our regional campus cities are inextricably linked, and the opportunity for partnerships between the University and governmental leaders of the region has never been more important,” the letter, first reported on by The Columbus Dispatch, said.

Faculty at the institution have placed much of the blame for OU’s recent failures on poor leadership within upper administration, including Nellis and Vice President for Finance and Administration Deborah Shaffer, who both received votes of no confidence in 2020 by Faculty Senate. 

“We feel strongly that (the administration has) to connect and be able to relate to the very different locales that are part of One Ohio,” Patterson said on behalf of the group. 

One of the mayors told Patterson that, under Nellis, a regional campus felt they were not being heard by senior administration. He didn’t specify which campus, saying he didn’t want to speak for the other mayors.

Patterson, a former OU faculty member who is familiar with the search process for fresh university leadership, said in an interview that he initiated the movement among mayors after Nellis called him the day before announcing his resignation to break the news of his imminent departure.

University spokesperson Carly Leatherwood confirmed the letter was received May 17 by Board of Trustees Chair Cary Cooper, who Patterson said called him on Monday to signal that the body was willing to cooperate with the mayors’ request.

“The Trustees acknowledge and appreciate the relationship Ohio University has with our community partners, and they are committed to engage our local partners in the process as we move forward with our transition planing (sic),” Leatherwood said of the mayors’ letter in a statement.

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