Editorial: ISU needs to steady waters with next choice of next president

(Terre Haute) Tribune-Star

Indiana State University needs its next president to instill steady progress through the campus.

Likewise, Terre Haute needs ISU to do that. The university is the city’s third-largest employer, behind only the Vigo County School Corp. and Union Hospital. Along with ISU’s faculty and staff employees, its 8,300 students help comprise nearly one-sixth of Terre Haute’s population.

Many Sycamore alums choose to stay here, work for local businesses, raise families, volunteer, attend houses of worship, pay taxes and send their kids to VCSC schools.

It matters greatly that ISU thrives in the future. At the moment, the university is struggling with uncertainty.

This week, the community learned that Sycamore Athletic Director Sherard Clinkscales had resigned, a seemingly sudden move. It came at an unusual moment, halfway through the university’s 2023-24 athletic season. On Thursday, the Tribune-Star obtained a “separation and release agreement” signed by Clinkscales and ISU President Deborah Curtis. The document explained that ISU and Clinkscales had “mutually agreed” that he would resign as athletic director effective Dec. 31. It also explained his severance package, which included 50 percent of his salary over the final 18 months of his contract, totaling $165,979, plus other benefits and considerations.

The agreement also included a “non-disparagement” clause, obliging Clinkscales, Curtis and ISU to refrain from making derogatory comments about each other.

The university and its former AD indeed issued only praise for each other in the statements issued after Clinkscales’ resignation became public. And, no other specific explanation for his departure has been given.

Regardless of the reason, the situation certainly leaves a high-profile segment of the university in some disarray. The university did, wisely, place the interim athletic director duties in the capable hands of longtime Sycamore athletic administrator Angie Lansing, ISU’s senior associate AD and senior woman administrator. She served in the interim role once before, in 2016 just before former ISU President Dan Bradley hired Clinkscales.

The permanent role of AD undoubtedly will not be filled until a new ISU president is hired. Curtis is retiring effective June 30, 2024 — one year earlier than her contract had called for — under an agreement approved by the university’s board on Dec. 15, 2023. The choice of Clinkscales long-term replacement should be made by that new president. That president and staff would be smart to choose Lansing for that position, if she would choose to take it.

ISU is certainly far more than just its athletics programs. Nonetheless, its teams and their events can serve as a bonding place for the greater community. Clinkscales had built a solid corps of coaches, and the teams experienced some strong successes for local residents to follow and enjoy. The highlights include the ISU men’s basketball, baseball and men’s and women’s track and field programs, and a third-place finish in the Missouri Valley Conference’s All-Sports Trophy race in 2021, the school’s best finish since 2014.

Right now, Coach Josh Schertz’s Sycamore men’s basketball team sits atop the early standings of the Missouri Valley Conference, and the fan following is growing.

Other universities have seen athletic programs help in the recruitment of students in general. ISU definitely needs that jolt. The COVID-19 pandemic certainly hurt enrollments at colleges across America, including ISU. Still, the enrollment drop at Indiana State has been breathtaking. It fell to 8,305 students last fall, a decline of 4.1% from the previous year and down 36% from fall 2017’s 13,045 total. In response to enrollment losses, ISU made about $12 million in budget cuts this over the course of a year, including a reorganization.

A new ISU president will face a handful of concerns when that person arrives in June. A search committee and the ISU Board of Trustees needs to make a stellar choice.

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