University of New Orleans President Peter Fos, who has spent more than three years with the unenviable job of shrinking an institution assailed by funding cuts and declining enrollment, said Monday that he will retire in January.
“I’m at the point here at the university that I think I’ve just about contributed all that I emotionally and physically can,” said Fos, 66. “I think it’s time now to retire ... and have someone else come here and take the university the rest of the way.”
The University of Louisiana system has not provided a timeline for when a new president will be selected. Fos will officially retire on Jan. 31, shortly after completing his fourth year at the helm of the university.
Rumors of his departure emerged late last week.
Fos said Monday that he started thinking about retiring about a month ago as he was writing up a self-evaluation for the University of Louisiana system and found himself unsure how much more he could “continue to push.”
Fos said he discussed his plan for retirement with system President Sandra Woodley and some board members. He said Woodley and the board have been “very kind” and are allowing him to retire on his own terms.
“The board and I express our gratitude to President Fos for his work over the past four years during a very difficult time for higher education,” Woodley said in a statement. “No institution has faced more challenges than the University of New Orleans. We wish Dr. Fos well in his retirement and look forward to working closely with him over the next several months to ensure a smooth transition.”
Fos has had to navigate UNO through wrenching cutbacks. The Lakefront university’s state funding fell from $56 million in 2008 to $28 million last year. Enrollment has fallen from 17,360 students in 2003 to 8,281 last spring.
In an interview last year, Fos lamented that the cash-strapped school had “really never made all of the hard, tough decisions” to reduce staffing and other costs as its enrollment fell, a trend that accelerated after Hurricane Katrina.
He has cut at least 140 positions and closed a popular on-campus child care center. Another 80 jobs may be cut when the university outsources its maintenance services work this fall, a move that is expected to save more than $1 million over five years.
In another cost-cutting measure, Fos has recommended eliminating six academic programs, one department and 22 faculty and staff positions to save $1 million this academic year and $2.8 million next year.
In response, the UNO faculty passed a largely symbolic vote of no confidence in his ability to continue leading the school.
Fos, a UNO graduate and New Orleans native whose time as president will be the shortest of any UNO leader in a generation, said he would still have taken the job even knowing that the state’s budget cuts would force him to make unpopular decisions. He said he is proud of having slashed the university’s deficit and put it on better financial footing.
“There’s a lot of good things I can look back on,” Fos said. “I’m walking out with my head held high.”
Still, he said his time at UNO often left him frustrated, and he didn’t feel, at times, that the return he received was commensurate to the effort he put in. The state funding cuts and constant threat of more cuts left him without sufficient resources to move the university as far forward as he would have liked, he said.
“I’ve gotten us on solid footing. I’ve gotten us on the right path,” he said. “Now it’s time for me to hand it off to somebody else to take us the rest of the way.”
Asked what kind of leader might be good for the job, Fos said, “A magician.”
“It’s not going to be easy for the next person,” he said. “It’ll be easier than when I got here, but it won’t be easy.”
Before joining UNO, Fos was a professor and program director of health policy and systems management at the LSU Health Sciences Center. He also spent three years as provost and executive vice president at the University of Texas at Tyler.