Phil Kirk returns to Raleigh after position at Catawba cut
By Scott Jenkins
Phil Kirk went to work for Catawba College nearly three years ago with several mandates, among them to promote the college, strengthen its ties to other organizations and help raise money for the school. Now, a lack of money caused by the recession has cost him his job.
Kirk, a Rowan native and Catawba alumnus who has held a number of state government offices and appointed positions, was vice president of external relations at the college from July 2006 until recently.
Kirk said he heard the news April 30 when called into the office of Catawba President Dr. W. Craig Turner. Kirk recalls Turner telling him “that he hated to do it, but because of a severe budget deficit at Catawba, that he decided to eliminate my position.
“He assured me it had nothing to do with job performance and said he would be happy to give me a recommendation,” Kirk said in a telephone interview this week. He and his wife, Margaret, have returned to the home they’ve maintained in Raleigh while Kirk worked for Catawba.
Former Catawba President Dr. Robert Knott created the post in 2006, shortly after Kirk ended a 16-year tenure as president and chief executive officer of N.C. Citizens for Business and Industry. During a career in government, Kirk served as chairman of the State Board of Education, a member of the N.C. State Senate and chief of staff for two North Carolina governors and a U.S. senator, among other posts.
At the time of Kirk’s hiring at Catawba, where he was a trustee, Knott said his “reputation, contacts and experience in both business and education and his breadth of knowledge about our institution will serve us well as we strive to make substantive connections between our academic programs and the broader community.”
Kirk said he believes he lived up to those expectations at Catawba and was surprised when Turner told him he had become a budgetary casualty.
“To be candid, my reaction was one of shock and disbelief, because I assisted in bringing in far more grant money than my salary,” he said. “I thought I had done a good job and told Dr. Turner that ó and he said I had ó but I told Dr. Turner I thought it was very shortsighted and everyone I spoke with felt the same way.”
Kirk added, however, that he doesn’t want to second-guess Turner “because he has difficult decisions to make. … It’s very difficult being a college president or chancellor these days, so I sympathize with the situation the president finds himself in.”
When contacted about Kirk’s departure from Catawba, Turner issued the following statement:
“We do not comment on individual employment issues in order to respect the privacy of our faculty and staff. However, the global economic crisis, which has seriously impacted education throughout the state and nation, has forced us to make some extremely difficult decisions. Among these has been a reduction in our work force. While no one at Catawba is pleased at having to do so, our primary concern has been to maintain the quality educational experiences we make available for our students. Catawba College remains committed to providing first class learning opportunities for our students, even during these economically challenging times.”
Kirk notes a number of accomplishments at Catawba. At the Ketner School of Business, he took primary responsibility for creating the Business Hall of Fame, initiating the Distinguished CEO Lecture Series and establishing a business advisory board that meets twice annually to advise the school.
He also brought in the former head of Elon University’s business school as an advisor, co-chaired a strategic planning process for the Ketner school and initiated an effort for the school’s accreditation, which he said it hopes to receive within the next year. In addition, he traveled on behalf of the college to gather ideas from other business schools and secured internships, including its first-ever international internship with Food Lion.
Kirk was Catawba’s liaison to the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis ń setting in motion several initiatives for the future, he said — and served as chairman of a group including representatives from Livingstone College, Rowan-Cabarrus Community College and the Rowan-Salisbury School System whose mission was to explore ways to work with the Research Campus.
He also opened relations between Catawba and five area community colleges, served as the college’s liaison to 10 area chambers of commerce and organized luncheons for the college president with area legislators and other academic leaders.
Kirk spearheaded several initiatives to improve traffic safety on the portion of West Innes Street that runs through the heart of the Catawba campus and an effort to get Salisbury’s sign ordinance modified to allow an electronic sign at the Robertson College Community Center.
“That sounds simple, but I worked on that for three years,” he said.
Kirk said he’ll miss his work in the Rowan community, where he’s a member of the Rotary Club and the Rowan Chamber of Commerce State-Federal Affairs Committee and sits on boards for Rowan Regional Medical Center, the Salisbury-Rowan Economic Development Commission and the United Way.
He doesn’t plan to resign those positions until he knows where he’ll be working, but it appears his job prospects are in the Raleigh area, he said.
“One thing I’m really going to miss is my work with students,” said Kirk, a former teacher of the year in the Salisbury City Schools who at Catawba taught classes on business ethics and education policy, among other subjects.
Kirk plans to return to Rowan on Thursday to speak at the 50th commencement ceremony at East Rowan, where he graduated high school. He also plans to return to take in some local sports and said he’s open to participating in other events.
“If invited, of course I will,” he said. “I’ll do anything I can for Rowan County.”