Fresno State President John Welty talks with Action News

May 13, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
Fresno State President John Welty will lead his final commencement ceremony this week.

Dr. Welty is retiring this summer after nearly 22 years of leadership on the Fresno campus.

In an exclusive interview with Action News, Welty talked about his triumphs and troubles -- and his legacy -- as the longest serving president in Fresno State's 102 year history.

Fresno State President John Welty loves his work.

Action News asked, "20 plus years later -- are you still having fun at this job?"

Welty replied, "Yes. I think if you're going to do one of these jobs, you do have to enjoy it. And the day you don't enjoy it, you better get out of it in a hurry."

John Welty must have really enjoyed the job. No other Fresno State president has served as long. He's handed out 83,000 degrees, and he's facing his final commencement.

Action News asked, "Will there be a tear in your eye, a smile on your face, or both?"

"Well, probably both," replied Welty. "But I suspect there will be some tears flowing as I walk out of the Save Mart Center after the commencement ceremonies over. Commencement is for the students and I'll certainly be congratulating them, and sharing with them that I'm graduating with them this year and that's very special."

Welty never anticipated serving more than two decades as president, but he says the potential and opportunities at Fresno State attracted this man from the Midwest to the job in the first place.

Welty explained, "I really felt that I as long as I could contribute here and make a difference that I was going to stay and spend some time here."

You can see the Welty difference throughout the Fresno State campus. The outgoing president took us on a tour of the new construction during his leadership. From the renovated Madden Library, to sparkling sports facilities, Welty oversaw a $425,000,000 campus transformation. The next major building project is the Jordan Ag Research Center, scheduled to open in 2015.

Welty added, "That will dramatically expand our capacity in terms of research we can do in the Ag industry and related sciences."

Welty's legacy is much more than concrete and steel. At Fresno State, 16,000 students are now involved in some sort of community service or service learning through the Richter Center.

For example, Sigma Chi fraternity recently donated $16,000 from a fundraiser to Children's Hospital. Students and staff contributed more than one million hours of community service last year.

"One of the responsibilities of a college educated person is to give back to the community in which they live," said Welty. "They can best understand that by getting involved in service while they're here."

Welty wanted the entire university to make a difference in addressing the needs and issues of the region it served. He steered the creation of new curriculum and colleges to focus on those challenges, while creating more education opportunities for all students to improve and change their lives. To accomplish those goals, Welty evolved into a fruitful fundraiser, despite less than fertile financial soil.

Action News asked, "Was there ever a time you thought 'boy we're in over our head in here. We've got this goal for fundraising. Its huge we're just not going to make it?'"

Welty replied, "Well, actually I remember two times. One with the Save Mart Center, there was a point there in that campaign when I said 'we're not gonna get there.'" And again in 2008, we were just getting into the campaign for Fresno State; I thought to myself, this was a crazy thing to start."

But the initial campaign for Fresno State generated more than $214,000,000. Private giving to the university during Welty's tenure stands at more than $350,000,000.

Despite success, Welty's critics believe his legacy is tainted by sports scandals, costly gender discrimination lawsuits, rifts with faculty, and the rising price of a higher education. Welty accepted responsibility for the problems.

Welty said, "But I also said we're going to fix the issues that we address and I think we have."

Welty points to the athletics program as an example. He believes the university is now a top ten school for gender equity and that the coaching staff and administrators are committed to a culture of compliance. Welty believes overall, the university now has a stronger set of values.

Welty explained, "And probably the commitment people have to providing a great experience for students may be even greater as a result of some of the challenges we faced."

Just as university presidents get the blame for the bad things, Welty feels their accomplishments can also be exaggerated. He claims he's been very fortunate to be in the leadership position of a successful team effort.

"Hopefully, they'll remember that I cared," said Welty. "That I wanted this university to become better and that this is a better place than when we started back in 1991."

Welty says he'll never forget the great accomplishments of Bulldog sports teams -- and most of all -- he'll miss all the people involved at Fresno State.

After retirement this summer, he and his wife will move to Southern California, where he'll become a trustee professor at CSU San Bernardino.


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