By Justin Wier
The Jambar reported in the March 3 issue on changes in the Office of Student Affairs at Youngstown State University. We had an opportunity to sit down with Jim Tressel, president of YSU, who detailed his vision for extensive changes coming to Student Affairs.
Tressel plans to create two new departments — the Division of Student Success and the Division of Student Experience — that will accompany the Division of Enrollment Planning and Management to replace the office.
Tressel said an opportunity was created by the retirement of Jonelle Beatrice, former executive director of student life, at the end of last year and the coming retirement of Jack Fahey, vice president for Student Affairs, at the end of this year. Matt Novotny, executive director of student services, will also be departing as the university has decided not to renew his contract when it expires in June. These three positions will be replaced by an associate vice president of student success and an associate vice president of student experience.
“You can look at losing personnel one of two ways. You can whine and say ‘woe is us.’ Or you can say, ‘good for them, they get to enjoy the next chapter of their life, and oh by the way, here’s an opportunity for us to bring in some new ideas, and some new talent,’ and we’re going to look at it the second way,” Tressel said.
Breaking It Up
Tressel saw room for improvement in the Office of Student Affairs, which had a broad focus when he came to the university in July. The office oversaw enrollment, management, financial aid, the registrar, student activities, Kilcawley Center, the residence halls, the rec center and the Center for Student Progress, among other areas.
“If you think about all the things Jack [Fahey]’s group has to shoulder, it’s a good thing he has big shoulders. Because he has a lot of balls in the air there,” Tressel said.
The first area they decided to focus on was enrollment, and the changes were made early on in Tressel’s tenure as president.
“We talked through my first three or four months about where we really needed to focus so that we could increase our excellence. We felt like enrollment management and planning was about attracting students, and making sure we could get them a good financial aid package, because financial aid is so tied to one’s ability to come,” Tressel said. “So we said that needs to be a focus.”
Tressel placed Gary Swegan, current associate vice president of enrollment planning and management, in charge of this effort.
The next point of focus was retention and completion.
“Especially in tough revenue times, where is your greatest opportunity for revenue? That’s in the students that you attracted continuing and finishing, so that whole student success piece is a gigantic, important area,” Tressel said. “So we came to the conclusion that that needs to be a focus area, something that someone works on 24 hours a day.”
The university is currently advertising for an associate vice president of student success to fill this role.
“We need someone to come in and show us the kind of success they’ve had in having excellent student retention and completion,” Tressel said.
Tressel said he isn’t entirely sure where the division will fit in the hierarchy of the administration.
“We’re going to have a really good, vibrant debate about where’s the best place for student success to report. Because currently, you have some academic advising going on within colleges, so the colleges report to the Division of Academic Affairs. And then you have the Center for Student Progress and some of the general retention specialists, and peer mentors, and tutors and all that, report to Student Affairs,” Tressel said. “So we have the student success kind of serving different masters if you will, and we’re putting them together, so should they be in the Division of Academic Affairs? There’s a real good argument for that. Or should they be a stand-alone and report directly to the president? There’s a discussion that that’s a plus, because of how important it is.”
He said they will take incoming candidates’ views on this into consideration.
“We’ll want to really listen to the candidates who say, ‘I think it should be this way. Here’s how I think we should do it. Here’s how we’ll integrate with the colleges. Here’s how we’ll integrate with the provost’s office. Here’s how we’ll integrate with the president’s office,’” he said.
Tressel served as executive vice president for student success at the University of Akron before coming to YSU. He said that during his first year, he reported to the provost, and in the second, he reported directly to the president.
“I don’t know that it matters which area it reports to, I do think it matters how much emphasis it’s given,” Tressel said. “And that’s really why I’ve come to the conclusion that Student Success has to be a world of it’s own, it’s got to be a passion of its own, it’s got to be something that doesn’t have divided duties, it’s 24 hours a day someone’s working on that.”
Improving the Student Experience
The final piece in Tressel’s re-envisioning of the Office of Student Affairs is student experience.
“We happen to think that the experience a student has here is as valuable as the academic knowledge they [obtain]. I know that the time I spent on the school newspaper was tremendously impactful for me, or my sports team, or my fraternity, those [experiences] are formative,” Tressel said. “So we decided, let’s have someone come in and focus on that, which would be our rec center, and our residence halls, and our dining and all the things that touch the student outside the classroom.”
An associate vice president for student experience will fill this role.
There are significant challenges getting students involved at YSU because of its status as a commuter campus.
“If you asked me what’s the most important thing that someone would have to demonstrate that they’d had success with in the past, or have a plan for, in our particular case? It is having more than just those thousand kids who live here really engaged, but having the whole campus engaged, and that’s not an easy task,” Tressel said.
He would also like to see an increase in the number of amenities in the area surrounding campus to improve student experience, saying he would like to see a grocery store, more apartment-style housing and a larger gas station similar to a Sheetz in the near-term.
“Fortunately, all of these discussions don’t cost us any money. These are people coming in and willing to develop around us, so it’s not anything we have to spend money on. It’s just some things we have to convince someone to come in and roll the dice with us on and see if their business will succeed,” Tressel said.
The decision to reduce three positions down to two was driven primarily by budgetary concerns.
“We have a responsibility in every part of the campus to tighten our belt because we’re in a difficult financial time, and so I can’t ask everyone else to tighten their belt and then us not tighten it when it comes to administrative decisions,” Tressel said.
Fahey’s salary is currently $143,640. We previously reported Beatrice’s salary as $84,954 and Novotny’s as $36,860. Those numbers were outdated. Beatrice’s salary was $105,000 and Novotny’s is $107,000, according to Fahey. With the new positions’ advertised salary ranging from $90,000 to $130,000, the changes will save the university between $95,000 and $175,000 per year.
The administration is planning on filling the new positions by July.