In March 2006, Larry Rivers left his post as the dean of Florida A&M’s College of Arts and Sciences to assume the presidency of Fort Valley State in rural Middle Georgia.
This move was only after Rivers’ lauded stint as a faculty member, administrator, and supporter of a school in which he dedicated decades of leadership in Tallahassee. Rivers worked at FAMU for almost three decades, starting as an assistant professor and working his way to a position as a Distinguished University professor.
The FVSU president was featured in the October 2009 issue of “Smart Money” magazine for his administrative transformation of FVSU.
“At each level, I learned quite a bit about what it means to handle, and motivate individuals to get the best results,” Rivers said.
The Philadelphia native graduated from then-Fort Valley State College with a Bachelor of Science degree in social science education. He then earned a master’s degree in history from Villanova University and, in 1977, received his Ph.D. from Carnegie-Mellon. Goldsmith College and the University of London also awarded Rivers with doctorate-level history degrees.
Rivers credits his extensive portfolio, a collection of seven books written, edited or co-authored by Rivers, of historical research and non-fiction writings to his time at FAMU.
Rivers decided to return to FVSU five years ago. The university was haunted with declining enrollment, low staff morale, a budget deficit and dwindling endowment, he said. Since that time, Rivers has written his own chapter of prestige at the small Peach County, Georgia HBCU.
He said he had several examples by which to conjure his own formula for administrative success at FVSU.
FVSU was under the threat of either severe cuts or outright closure in a city with 22.9 percent of the populace living below the federal poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Today, FVSU is more than a viable public institution. The “jobs engine” for Middle Georgia, has doubled enrollment in just 48 months. Rivers expects 5,000 students in the next few years.
“I have to admit that our recruitment strategies emulated the Humphries-FAMU model. My wife, and I travel with a group of students we call the ‘Wildcat Force,'” Rivers said about the FVSU version of the FAMU Connection.
The Wildcat Force is instrumental in attracting students to FVSU, Rivers said.
“You had students who had never heard of Fort Valley interested in our programs,” he said.
To ensure the growing university is prepared to take on the emerging technology-based global economy, Rivers said his faculty is learning, and in-turn teaching, the importance of information technology.
“All of them understand that through the use of computers and the Internet, students need to be exposed to all aspects of technology. Our faculty is very cognizant of the highly-technological society we live in,” Rivers said.
It is because of the Rivers’ administration’s willingness to prepare its pupils for a future-world that the Georgia Board of Regents approved online bachelor’s degree programs in political science, psychology and English, and off-site programs in criminal justice, business administration and an online criminal justice franchise.
New programs and a growing student body and labor force has only supplemented the strong town-and-gown relationship between the city of Fort Valley, Peach County, and the university.
“Fort Valley State is one of the largest economic engines in the Middle Georgia area, generating $250 million in revenue, and employing some 1700 individuals,” said Rivers.
Although FVSU faced a 30 percent reduction in its budget this year, Rivers said he hasn’t laid off a single employee.
“Fort Valley is in great shape,” Rivers said. “People always come up to me, and ask me, as though I know every single position at the university, whether they can be hired by me.”
Although, Rivers once again calls Fort Valley home, his connections on “the Hill,” run deep. Over the summer, his son, Larry Rivers, who is a former FAMU student body president, was the first black person to successfully defend a doctoral dissertation from Vanderbilt University, colloquially known as the “Harvard of the South.”
“Larry O. had some great teachers at FAMU, and when he went to (Vanderbilt), he was prepared,” Rivers said of his son, who is now an assistant professor of history at Augusta State University. “FAMU should be proud. His completion of the program is a testament to the academic rigor still alive at HBCUs today.”
The FVSU football team returned to Tallahassee on Sept. 3 after 27 years in the season opener for Rattler football.
“The game between FVSU and FAMU goes back for many years,” Rivers said. “Really, FAMU and FVSU are two families that have worked, and shared resources with each other for a long time.”