CONNOR MURPHY —
Strategic enrollment management, growing external revenue and graduate education are the three areas Dr. Richard Helldobler would focus on in his first three years as president of William Paterson University if he were hired. Kathleen Waldron, who has been president of WPU for eight years, retires at the end of June.
Helldobler is the interim president at Northeastern Illinois University. He spoke to members of the WPU community at an open forum on Thursday, one of four presidential candidate finalists to come to campus recently. His address in Ballroom A of the student center was witty and light-hearted and earned him both laughs and applause, mainly from faculty members as few students attended.
“Should I join you as the president, my first point of business would be a listening tour, to have a full understanding of the dynamics, the culture, and hearing your hopes and dreams for William Paterson,” said Helldobler, followed by the three items mentioned above.
Though Helldobler is the current interim president at NIU, though he says he won’t be considered for the position, a matter that was brought up during the question and answer portion of the forum.
“There’s an elephant in the room,” said a member of the audience. “On your resume, it states that you’re currently the president at Northeastern Illinois, can you tell us if you are being considered for the position?”
“I’m not,” said Helldobler. “There’s two reasons. I took over the presidency in the middle of a budget crisis. That crisis resulted in laying off 180 people. When you do that, you expend a lot of political capital. For that reason, I think I wasn’t part of the final mix there.”
However, according to an investigation by the Chicago Sun-Times, NIU’s decision to conduct a national search rather than appoint Helldobler as president had more to do with his decision to sign a $30,000 contract to bring Valerie Jarrett to speak at commencement in 2017 – President Obama’s White House advisor – when the university was struggling financially.
Facing backlash that the university was spending such a large sum of money when faculty and staff were being forced to take unpaid days off and three days of classes were canceled, the Sun-Times reported that a private donor agreed to use part of an earlier gift to fund Jarrett, who in the end repaid the fee, except for travel costs.
Those concerns followed on the heels of criticism about Helldobler’s trip to President Donald Trump’s inauguration in January 2017 at a cost of $4,473.04.
“The bills were paid for by the Northeastern Illinois University Foundation, which is run by the university’s vice president of institutional advancement,” according to the Chicago Sun Times. “To cover the costs of the Washington trip, Helldobler tapped ‘the president’s discretionary account’ that the foundation maintains,” according to the Sun-Times.
During the forum at WPU, Helldobler addressed his visit to Trump’s inauguration.
“Yes, I did attend the Trump inauguration. Guilty. I assumed the office of the presidency in October (2016),” he said. “Two weeks into my presidency, the executive director said it is the history of Northeastern Illinois University presidents to attend the first inauguration of the president of the United States.”
The third presidential finalist, Dr. James Strong, will be on campus Tuesday and Wednesday, Feb. 20 and 21. An open forum will be held Tuesday, Feb. 20, 12:45 to 2 p.m., in University Commons Ballroom C where Dr. Strong will make a brief presentation, then respond to questions.