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FLETCHER: Freeman leaves behind a legacy of growth at ASU

Opinion Column

Carlton Fletcher

Carlton Fletcher

I have to pack my things and go.

Ray Charles

Many Albany State University alumni in town for the historically black college’s annual homecoming festivities this past week were surprised to learn of the pending departure of their alma mater’s eighth president, Everette Freeman.

Freeman, after nine years at ASU, has been selected to become president of the 12,000-student Community College of Denver in Colorado. He is expected to start serving at CCD on Nov. 1.

To say that Freeman’s tenure at Albany State was a tumultuous one would be understatement. He came to Albany from the University of Indianapolis with marching orders to increase enrollment, and some of Freeman’s methods for doing so did not sit well with many of the university’s old-school alumni. Freeman worked with the entrenched power brokers in the region — the majority of them old-money, most of them white — seeking an infusion of what has become the life’s blood of institutions of higher learning: cold, hard cash.

That Freeman would court elements of the “white community” in search of needed dollars and new students did not sit well with alumni who had graduated from ASU during past eras in which the college was all but ignored by whites in and around Albany. Many told me privately that Freeman was “selling the soul” of an institution founded by Dr. Joseph Holley more than a century ago so that blacks, kept out of institutions of higher learning by the white power structure that fought to keep them uneducated, would have an opportunity to pass on knowledge to young blacks with no other educational options.

Even his biggest detractors must admit, though, that Freeman will leave behind a legacy of growth. Enrollment at ASU increased from less than 1,800 to more than 4,500 during his tenure, and millions of dollars were spent at the university for eight substantial on-campus construction projects, including new dorms, classroom facilities and other student-centered structures.

However, Freeman rankled some alumni feathers by implementing policies that chipped away at the foundation of some of the institution’s most revered traditions. Many also — wrongly, it turned out — blamed Freeman for the fiasco surrounding use of the $3 million given to the university by late Albany-born singer Ray Charles during the tenure of Freeman’s predecessor, Portia Holmes Shields.

The university eventually sent the money back to the Ray Charles Foundation, which has handled the hall of fame singer’s financial affairs since his death on June 10, 2004.

Freeman’s vision for Albany State was far-reaching, extending beyond the bricks and mortar of the traditional classroom to cyberspace and beyond. He coaxed faculty and staff to extend their lessons beyond accepted educational parameters and prepare their students for a rapidly changing world. Many among the university’s old guard resented the president’s attempts to broaden their educational methods, and a number who bumped heads with him about it found themselves seeking employment elsewhere.

A number of ASU’s more prominent alumni, men and women who were revered at the university in the past, were put off by Freeman’s refusal to shower them with the same attention they had received by his predecessors. Some even severed ties at the university that extended back several decades.

But Freeman leaves Albany with the knowledge that his vision for Albany State University moved it beyond boundaries — institutional and self-imposed — that Holley never would have foreseen, even in his wildest dreams. And he leaves the university in a position that will allow his successor to take it perhaps beyond even Freeman’s wildest dreams.

As he prepared to leave Albany behind last week, Freeman spoke fondly of his tumultuous tenure of president at ASU. And he noted that, in the end, his accomplishments and failures will eventually be only footnotes in the university’s storied history.

“Albany State University never has been and never will be about me or any other individual,” he said. “Presidents come and go. It’s the university that endures.”