With enrollment at capacity, new WCU president faces unusual challenge

Chris Fiorentino, new president of West Chester University, to be inaugurated Friday.

Among the 14 schools in the state university system, West Chester is an anomaly, and its new president, Chris Fiorentino, is confronting an unusual problem.

“There isn't really anywhere else for us to grow in terms of the campus,” said Fiorentino, who, after 33 years at West Chester, will be inaugurated formally as its 15th president on Friday. “We don't have any more room for residence halls. We’re putting the brakes on our ability to continue to grow at this point.”

Fiorentino, 63, has witnessed a remarkable expansion since he began working at the university in 1983 as an economics instructor working toward a doctorate at Temple University.

Enrollment at the time was 9,500; it now exceeds 17,000, a record, and Fiorentino said the plan is to keep the number right about there. The student body has grown 20 percent in the last five years.

At the same time, other universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education have experienced significant enrollment declines, which Fiorentino attributed to economic conditions and an “outmigration” in other parts of the state.

Fiorentino will replace Greg R. Weisenstein, for whom the university’s veterans' center is named and who retired at the end of March after eight years in the job. Fiorentino, who was the university's  vice president of external operations, had served as interim president from last April until January, when he was named president.

“Chris is very passionate about West Chester University. It’s in his blood,” said Tom Fillippo, chair of the West Chester University Council of Trustees. “Overwhelmingly, his heart shone through.”

Fiorentino, who will be paid $296,900 annually,  will be the third president in   25 years. “One thing about West Chester: There's very little turnover in leadership, and I think that has a lot to do with our success,” Fillippo said. “People want to go to West Chester.”

The school was founded in 1871 as West Chester Academy and later became West Chester State Teachers College, in 1927, and West Chester University, in the year Fiorentino arrived. In recent years it has expanded its offerings, including premedical and nursing programs.

Fiorentino said he was considering adding an engineering department.

Fiorentino describes the student body as primarily working-class. Typically, he said, a student is the first of a family to attend college and is committed to the university’s “community service ethic.” Last year students logged more than 500,000 service hours, he said.

The school says it has 30 students who are homeless, and a “resource pantry” to help provide food to needy students.

Fiorentino and students led a pre-inaugural food drive to raise awareness about food needs for poor people in the county, collecting more than 2,000 pounds of canned goods.  

Along with his on-the-job challenges, Fiorentino said he was looking forward to the summer and spending time in Ocean City, N.J., with his wife, Sue; his three children; and his grandchildren.

jbarwick@philly.com