Leadership & Governance

A Fired President Lashes Out at Leaders of Pennsylvania System

Guy Wathen, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Angelo Armenti Jr. was fired on May 16 by the governing board of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. The board did not give a reason.
May 23, 2012

Angelo Armenti Jr., the longtime president of California University of Pennsylvania, had an increasingly contentious relationship with officials of the state system and had even filed a formal complaint against its chancellor before he was fired last week.

Mr. Armenti was terminated by the Board of Governors of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education last Wednesday, a day before the board released the results of an audit that found the university had misrepresented its finances for a convocation center and had inappropriately directed public resources to its private foundation.

Over the past several days the former president has aggressively protested his firing, claiming that the state violated the terms of his employment contract and distributing a rebuttal of some of the issues raised in the audit.

Mr. Armenti, who was the university's leader for two decades, is also fighting the state system in court, asking for more time to retrieve his belongings from his university office. The system's vice chancellor had, on Tuesday, sent Mr. Armenti an e-mail at 1:40 p.m., saying that although Mr. Armenti had 60 days to leave his university-owned home, he needed to vacate his university office by the close of business that day. On Wednesday, a state judge granted Mr. Armenti a temporary injunction, ordering the campus police to seal his office until a hearing on Friday, according to the local newspaper, The Observer-Reporter.

Complaint Against Chancellor

Less than two months before he was fired, on March 21, Mr. Armenti filed a formal grievance with the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. In that complaint, a copy of which The Chronicle has obtained, Mr. Armenti alleges that the chancellor, John C. Cavanaugh, with the help of his deputies and complicit newspapers, acted to "denigrate my achievements, undermine my effectiveness, diminish my authority, attack my credibility and damage my reputation and that of California University."

The complaint, which is 20 pages long, argues, in essence, that Mr. Cavanaugh was orchestrating a campaign aimed at bringing down Mr. Armenti's presidency. Though the complaint is serious in purpose and contains substantial pieces of evidence, parts of it strike a grandiose tone. The document quotes from the Bible, references a war proverb, and compares state officials' "dirty tricks" with the Watergate scandal.

In other sections, Mr. Armenti employs an informal, even sarcastic tone. For example, he asks, apparently rhetorically, whether the office of the chancellor would reimburse the university for all the staff time his employees "have invested (wasted?) trying to put out the media fires that some of our [system] friends are happily lighting."

One of Mr. Armenti's main allegations is that system officials "tipped off" local reporters that the system had commissioned an audit at California University, which is located in a borough of that name in southwestern Pennsylvania. They enlisted the news media, he claims, in an attempt to embarrass him and lay the groundwork to fire him.

"The critical role of the media in getting public university presidents fired is well documented," Mr. Armenti writes in the complaint. "A few well-placed, anonymous tips from unscrupulous enemies can sic the media hounds onto a president—especially if that president can be smeared with an allegation of 'financial impropriety.'"

Mr. Cavanaugh and some of his staff were also needlessly meddling in the internal operations the university, Mr. Armenti says in the complaint. For example, after the university had worked "diligently" with the chancellor's staff for more than a year on a plan to furlough 10 university managers, Mr. Armenti says that Mr. Cavanaugh intervened the day before the university was set to notify the affected employees and ordered Mr. Armenti to halt the process. Because Mr. Armenti had previously warned the campus that such furloughs were imminent, he says the chancellor undermined his credibility.

The complaint also describes an acrimonious relationship between Mr. Armenti and state officials. Mr. Armenti says that the chancellor was unreceptive, and in some cases outright dismissive, of his ideas and feedback about how to finance public universities, like California University, in light of drastic losses in state support.

Karen S. Ball, the system's vice chancellor for external relations, declined to comment on Mr. Armenti's complaint and the specific allegations it contains. She also said the system had no comment on how, if at all, it had responded to the complaint.

A 'Flawed Audit'

Mr. Armenti is also taking aim at the state's audit of the university, which was begun in February after eight anonymous letters and one signed complaint alleged financial improprieties at the university.

He said that the auditors did not provide him with ample opportunity to respond to the entirety of the allegations.

Last week, the university sent out to faculty a rebuttal to some of the conclusions raised by the audit report. In the rebuttal, Mr. Armenti argues that having university employees solicit money on behalf of the university's private foundation does not constitute an illegal conflict of interest. Those employees, he says, act merely as liaisons to the foundation and lack any authority within the foundation. The rebuttal also says that the university's counsel has determined that transferring university housing profits to the private foundation does, in fact, comply with applicable statutes and case law.

In a letter Mr. Armenti sent to the chair of the state system's Board of Governors after his firing, Mr. Armenti accused the state of violating the terms of his employment contract.

"My contract requires six months' written notice," he wrote. "I was given five minutes' verbal notice."

Mr. Armenti also wrote that the system's legal counsel had told him that the state would buy out the remainder of his two-year contract in exchange for not suing the system.

"He said I would get that payment, but only if I didn't litigate," wrote Mr. Armenti, whose annual salary was $227,160. "If I did litigate, the Board would then change its tune and say that I had been fired for cause."

The state system is no longer paying Mr. Armenti, according to Ms. Ball, the vice chancellor for external relations. Asked about any severance or other payments, she said the system "does not have any agreements" with the former president at this time. Mr. Armenti will be entitled to retirement benefits in line with what a similarly situated employee would receive, she said.