In some ways, Youngstown State University’s appointment of Jim Tressel as president Friday represents the kind of comeback story the college itself will try to embody.
Tressel, after a decorated career as head coach of Ohio State University’s football team, was banned from the sidelines for NCAA rules violations three years ago. Meanwhile, Youngstown State has been stung by a revolving door of presidents and an $11 million budget deficit. In a city of vacant buildings and an evaporated steel industry, the university – one of the cheapest for Ohio residents – has had a 15 percent enrollment drop over four years.
The 61-year-old Ohio native, who also coached Youngstown State’s football team to four NCAA Division I-AA championships in the 1990s, will return to the university as its unlikely leader and cheerleader -- hired to add an adrenaline shot to morale and fund raising. The university’s last president, Randy Dunn, left for another job after just seven months in office.
“I think it was just a boost. The town of Youngstown and the school itself, after two short-term presidencies, wanted to feel good about itself again,” said Jamie Ferrare, managing principal of the headhunting group AGB Search, who assisted Youngtown State’s board in hiring Tressel.
“Time will tell whether this is a success or not, but he’s committed to this. He has a real passion for this institution,” Ferrare added.
Time will tell, indeed. Although Tressel secured the endorsements from faculty union leaders and the unanimous approval of the trustees, Youngstown State professors are holding their breath. Tressel has spent the last two years as a top student life administrator at the University of Akron and was the athletics director two decades at Youngstown State, but doesn’t have a Ph.D., or any meaningful classroom or academic administrative experience. He earned his master's degree in education from Akron.
Chet Cooper, chairman of the Youngstown State Academic Senate, said while “some professors are enthusiastic, some are diametrically opposed” to Tressel’s hire. Cooper said he hopes the search for an open provost position will help ease concerns because Tressel promised to “leave it up to the academic experts to choose a provost.”
“That was somewhat comforting and I’ll hold him to that,” Cooper said. “The trustees chose Mr. Tressel based on his fund raising ability to a large degree. All due respect to Mr. Tressel, but his strength isn’t in academics so we need to have a provost very strong in academics.”
About 10 percent to 15 percent of college presidents nationwide do not come through the traditional academic pipeline, instead coming in with corporate or political chops to help manage and fund raise. A statement from Youngstown State’s faculty union leader, Annette M. Burden, acknowledged that reality, saying: “We expect that he will be an excellent ambassador and an effective fund raiser for the University.”
But the fact that it’s becoming more common doesn’t stop faculty members from feeling squeamish about a non-Ph.D. calling the shots. Unease turned to deep satisfaction at Akron, where Tressel also sought the presidency and was one of three finalists this spring. In a poll of 217 Akron professors last week, 71 percent said they were “strongly opposed” to Tressel’s selection and 10 percent were “somewhat opposed,” according to survey results obtained by Inside Higher Ed.
Tressel had spent the last two years in positions created for him, steering “student success” efforts like launching a smartphone app called “The Akron Experience” and hiring “encouragers” to guide students academically. After naming him a finalist, Akron instead hired the University of Toledo provost Scott Scarborough as president.
Stephen Weeks, a biology professor and president of the Akron chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said Tressel’s lack of experience as an academic administrator was only half the problem. Faculty members were also “freaked out” by the Ohio State scandal.
After attracting admiration for his 2002 championship ring, cool demeanor and red sweater vests, Tressel broke NCAA rules by not telling top Ohio State officials that he knew players were receiving improper benefits, like trading memorabilia for free tattoos. He resigned as head coach in 2011 and the NCAA hit him with a five-year sanction, effectively banning him from the sidelines. (The punishment does not apply to non-athletics positions Tressel has taken, and he has said he won’t coach again.)
“A lot of people thought we’d be a laughingstock if we brought Jim Tressel in here, who’s been disgraced by Ohio State. Regardless of whether you think he got a punishment that was suitable, he did lie and was found to have covered stuff up,” Weeks said.
Faculty also said his vision for the university wasn’t clear, comparing his public presentation on his Akron candidacy last week to a football locker room speech. “It wasn’t clear he had much of a vision. He talked a lot about everyone being selfless and having unity, which is fine but it falls short of a vision,” said William D. Rich, an associate professor of law and chairman of Akron’s Faculty Senate.
At Youngstown State, Tressel has said he will focus on improving student retention, fund-raising and online learning. The college raised just $10 million last year, retained 65 percent of freshmen, and graduated just one-third of students in six years. Only 13 percent of minority students graduate in six years.
State funding has also decreased by nearly one-third over the last 25 years – the steepest drop of any Ohio public university.
Sudershan K. Garg, chair of the Youngstown State Board of Trustees, said he expects Tressel to help the college increase fund-raising by 10 percent to 15 percent each year and advocate for more public dollars. First, Tressel has to get the administration in order and hire a provost, chief financial officer and fund-raising chief – a critical undertaking, Garg said.
“I always give the example of Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan was not the hands-on president but he hired the best guys to run the government. I believe Jim Tressel has the energy, stamina, mental attitude and strength to hire the best cabinet,” Garg said. “Many, many people would come to YSU since he’s the president.”
The committee of trustees and two students that picked Tressel -- over Southern Oregon University President Mary Cullinan and University of North Carolina at Wilmington Chancellor Gary L. Miller -- also reached out to his former colleagues and bosses.
That list of references included E. Gordon Gee, the former Ohio State president who now leads West Virginia University. In the middle of the Ohio State scandal, Gee somewhat notoriously joked that he hoped “the coach doesn’t dismiss me” when asked whether he would fire Tressel.
Gee said in an interview that although he never expected Tressel to move from the sidelines to a president’s office, he recommended his former coach for the job because of his leadership skills. Gee said one of Tressel’s most valuable assets would be his “substantial Rolodex” of potential donors, and added that he would tell Tressel to “look out for the politics of an institution.”
“There’s no more scrutinized role within the university than being a football coach. He has been in the crucible,” Gee said. “You have to have someone who has thick skin and gets the heat. Jim has been there.”