Wittenberg University has appointed an interim president who has been credited with growing enrollment at an Indiana school.
Dick Helton, president emeritus of Vincennes University, will begin at Wittenberg on Jan. 11 and is expected to be in the position for a minimum of 12 to 18 months while the Springfield school searches for its next leader to shepherd it through its financial struggles.
“Throughout his career, Dr. Helton has consistently proved to be a transformational leader of exceptional vision and accomplishment,” Wittenberg Board Chairman Thomas Murray said in a statement.
Former Wittenberg President Laurie Joyner resigned in November shortly after announcing $6.5 million in cuts at the university, including the elimination of retiree health benefits, cuts to employee health benefits and a review of academic programs that could lead to job cuts.
The university hasn’t answered questions about the progress of that academic review, which was originally slated to be completed by December.
Wittenberg has an estimated $70 million economic impact on Springfield.
The hiring didn’t surprise Springfield Mayor Warren Copeland, who met with Helton while he was in town last month. Copeland also serves as a Wittenberg religion professor and the faculty director for the Hagen Center for Civic and Urban Engagement.
“We had a good conversation,” Copeland said. “His experience at Vincennes was a significantly different kind of institution, but I think he came across as a friendly guy and a good people person. I think most people had the same reaction that he would relate well with other folks.”
Helton’s communication style will be a change of pace from Joyner, Copeland said.
“Lori was a very strong leader who didn’t consult as much as some of the folks on campus would’ve liked,” he said. “I think this guy is likely to be more consultative in the way he operates. I think that change of pace is what the board of directors was looking for.”
Helton served as president of Vincennes from 2004 to 2015. He couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon, but said in a statement he’s honored to serve Wittenberg.
“From my extensive conversations with students, faculty, staff, board members and community leaders, it is clear that Wittenberg is a special place committed to academic excellence and dedicated to helping students discover their passions,” he said.
Current Vincennes President Chuck Johnson served as provost during Helton’s tenure as president there and said he was instrumental in turning around the school’s enrollment.
The public university’s enrollment is currently about 19,000 students across several campuses that offer mostly one- and two-year degrees, but also some select four-year degrees. Wittenberg, a private Lutheran university, has about 1,900 students.
“Dick is going to be a great person to help Wittenberg and provide a steady hand,” Johnson said. “He’ll bring a lot of enthusiasm for the institution and for helping students. And I think he’s got great ability to handle a broad range of challenges, financial and capital projects, as well as enrollment and academic curriculum issues that he might have to face.”
Enrollment was a significant concern at Vincennes when Helton took over as president in 2004, Johnson said, but a decade later it has seen a record number of students.
“He was successful in helping us as an institution to focus on what was most important in terms of our mission, in helping students find opportunities and stay enrolled and graduate. He also did a lot to reach out and raise VU’s profile with key stakeholders throughout the state of Indiana and the region, particularly with respect to employers and donors,” he said.
Helton is a high-energy guy and approachable, Johnson said, as well as fiscally responsible.
He retired from Vincennes last year and moved to Ohio to be closer to his daughter’s family.
“Dick has a real passion for students and a passion for education so I knew he wouldn’t be on the sidelines for long,” Johnson said.
Helton began his career as a teacher, coach, athletic director and eventually a superintendent for 19 years in K-12 schools in Indiana.
He earned Indiana University’s Outstanding Leadership and Contribution to Education Award in 2006, Alpha Beta Gamma’s College President of the Year in 2006, and Phi Theta Kappa’s Shirley B. Gordon Award of Distinction in 2012.
Helton holds a Ph.D. in educational administration from Indiana State University, a Master’s degree in secondary education and an educational specialist degree from Indiana University, and a Bachelor’s in secondary education from Hanover College.
The feedback from faculty, staff and students who met with Helton in December was positive, according to Pete Hanson, chairman of the faculty executive board.
“His track record indicates that he’s a really strong leader and to boot he’s extremely personable,” Hanson said.
By the numbers
1,850: Students at Wittenberg
$70 million: Estimated economic impact of Wittenberg on Springfield
$56.5 million: Annual expense budget for fiscal year 2016.
$6.5 million: Structural deficit projected for end of fiscal year 2015.
Staying with the story
The Springfield News-Sun has closely tracked Wittenberg’s financial issues for several years, one of Springfield’s major employers, including stories digging into its credit ratings, cuts and leadership changes.