Garnering attention from the national media and stirring excitement across the state, Jim Tressel, famed former Ohio State University and Youngstown State University head coach, has been named YSU’s ninth president; he will begin his tenure July 1.
Tressel said he was attracted to the president position for the same reason he was attracted to education and coaching — the students.
“What drew me to being the president is I knew my favorite moments of coaching were working with the players. Once I got to the University of Akron, the most fun of my two years there was working with the students and seeing if I can do some things to help the students,” Tressel said. “That is what compelled me to want to be the president. Just the thought of being able to, in any way I can, directly or indirectly touch the students and their chance to succeed — to me that is a pretty honorable task.”
In addition, Tressel said his interest in student success will greatly influence the policies he focuses on as president.
“The first thing we have to do is we have to spend a lot of time together as an institution — figuring out what our mission clearly is, how we then can broaden our mission to impact others. But mission one is our students; we can’t lose sight of that,” Tressel said.
Tressel enters the stage during a time of trials for YSU. This year alone, YSU’s enrollment continued to decline, tuition increased, budget cuts were put into place and several administrators departed from the university.
Despite YSU’s grim circumstances, Tressel said he loves a challenge and is optimistic for YSU’s and, in turn, Youngstown’s future.
“I remember when I came here in 1986, everyone said, ‘You don’t want to go to Youngstown. The steel mills have just closed down 10 years earlier. Oh, This is a high school football town; they care more about Ursuline and Mooney and Boardman and Fitch and Warren-Harding than they do about YSU. Why would you want to do this?’ I said, ‘Well watch,’” Tressel said. “Six or seven years later, it wasn’t a high school football town anymore — the college team was a big deal. … I love it when they say you can’t do it.”
Other administrators expressed confidence in Tressel’s ability to lead the university in the right direction. Jack Fahey, vice president for student affairs, was one such administrator.
“On most campuses, there is a huge tension between academics and athletics because most academics feel like every dollar goes to athletics,” he said. “That is the natural tension on most campuses, but here, he is such a strong leader that he really got the entire university behind him when he was here the last time. He got the whole university excited about Penguin Nation and the state of Youngstown. He just generated incredible enthusiasm for the university to the extent that all the faculty that were here then still speak very highly of him.”
Fahey added that the shortage of administrators might be an advantage for Tressel, granting him a clean slate and allowing him to assemble a team that complements his administrative approach.
“We are in a situation where an incredible transformation is going to be made. If I am coming in as president, it is kind of great; I have got an open slate, in terms of I am going to get to pick a provost; I am going to get to pick a development officer; I am going to get to pick a business officer. And that is what Jim is kind of used to, being able to bring in his own people. You know when you are a football coach, the head coach gets fired and all the coaches get fired and brings in his own people. And frankly. Jim is really good at building a team of really smart, smart people,” Fahey said.
Tressel agreed with Fahey’s prediction, saying that he is looking for administrators that share his passion for student success, but will consider restructuring the current educational hierarchy at YSU before making new hires.
“So is the current way we have things set up the best? This is what we have to assess, but before we add anyone new. We are not just going to go out and say, ‘Well, this position is open, so let’s fill it.’ Let’s decide, in the context of the big picture, what do we need most right now. What expertise? What skill sets? But above all else, they have to believe in the mission, and the mission is students succeeding, leaving here with less debt, ready to compete against the world is job one.”
Because Tressel does not possess the typical traits of a university president, having only served as an educational administrator for two years, some have questioned if he has the proficiency to run a university.
In response, Ikram Khawaja, interim YSU president, observed that the president has the ability to define his own role based off of his particular abilities and use vice presidents and the provost to provide expertise where he is lacking.
“Presidency, in my view, is not set in stone. … Where within that spectrum do we want us to be? Then we can define, this is the role the president should have,” Khawaja said. “If we look at it objectively, the question would be what is it that best suits us. How do we maximize a person’s abilities and strengths?”
While some presidents serve primarily as fundraisers and spokesmen for the university, others play a more active role in the policy formulation, analysis and implementation. Tressel said he would try to play both roles.
“I look at the president as being a part of everything. Sometimes it would be at a Dana School of Music production; sometimes it will be at a basketball game; sometimes it will be in Cleveland at an alumni event. However many hours there are in a day, I am going to fill them all. Students will be part of it, but certainly not all of it,” Tressel said.