YOUNGSTOWN YSU chief reflects on 1st year
Dr. David Sweet says it's unlikely the university will reach its enrollment target this fall.
By RON COLE
VINDICATOR EDUCATION WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- The sleek chairs and ultra-modern glass coffee table that once graced the center of the president's office at Youngstown State University have been pushed to the side.
In their place: a long, hardwood conference table, scattered with documents, reports, studies and rolled up maps.
That, it seems, is David Sweet's style.
Since taking YSU's helm a year ago, Sweet has earned a reputation as a roll-up-the-sleeves, meticulous chief executive who, while maybe short on pizzazz, is long on patience, planning and precision.
A nuts-and-bolts, nitty-gritty administrator, Sweet, 62, came to YSU after 22 years as dean of Cleveland State University's urban affairs program.
He found an urban campus with highly accredited academic programs that had undergone tremendous physical and fund-raising expansion under the eight-year tenure of its highly visible previous president, Leslie Cochran.
But Sweet also found a university where the budget was in turmoil, enrollment was in a free fall, employee morale was in the dumper and community confidence and image were starting to deteriorate.
Main focus: In his first year, Sweet's main focus has been on boosting enrollment, struggling with lower-than-expected state funding, mending strained relations with employee unions, increasing campus diversity and building an administrative team.
In an interview at his office conference table, Sweet offered these thoughts on his first 12 months:
Q. When you came to YSU, you obviously were aware of the issues surrounding enrollment, the budget, diversity, the switch to semesters. What issues were you not aware of? What surprised you?
A. Well, I'd say labor-management relations and some of the lack of trust that exists and skepticism about the administration, whomever that might be. I found that to be a source of concern.
But, at the same time, when I went around and talked to people on campus, there's a lot of commitment to both the institution and the students.
Q. Obviously, employee relations will continue to be an issue, especially with what's sure to be a tough round of faculty contract negotiations coming up next year. Have you made any progress in improving those relations?
A. We had a labor summit, and at least we got both sides talking together, developing a common set of issues that we need to address. It was a good start, but only a start.
One of the issues that came up that I'm committed to moving on in the early part of the new academic year is, there's not a clear understanding of the university's budget process or how the resources are allocated to various functions at the university. What I've agreed to do is, we're going to have a session or sessions to look at the budget together and try to better understand and communicate how the resources are allocated. That's a first step in building trust.
Q. You identified three priorities when you took YSU's helm: enrollment, diversity and partnerships. Let's start with enrollment. You set a goal to increase enrollment by 5 percent this fall. Given that enrollment has dropped in 10 of the last 11 years, is a 5 percent increase realistic?
A. You have to have a goal, a target to work toward. I feel we're putting together needed approaches to achieve a turnaround in enrollment. Can we achieve it in one year? It's probably highly unlikely. Are there steps being taken that weren't in the past? Yes. So the question is what kind of return will we get on that effort?
We're tracking very closely students who were here but have not registered yet for next year. The colleges are calling students. We're packaging our financial aid better. Last year at this time, we had zero financial aid packages out to students. This year, we have 5,598 out.
Q. So students will be able to make decisions earlier.
A. Exactly. I see some nuts and bolts things like that that are being put in place that inevitably are going to help.
Q. I know I keep coming back to the 5 percent goal, and you probably would rather I not....
Q. But I've heard people say, "Geez, you know, I wish he hadn't come out publicly with that 5 percent target, that it just may be setting us up for failure." Was it advisable to come out with that lofty of a goal?
A. Probably not. I had a mentor along the way who told me if you don't have a failure once in a while, maybe it means you're not trying hard enough ... Am I going to be devastated if we don't make the 5 percent? No, because I do think we are doing some of the things that need to be done.
Q. You've talked about changing the culture on campus when it comes to enrollment. What do you mean by that, and how successful have you been?
A. There has been an attitude in some quarters that enrollment is the sole responsibility of the enrollment management folks. What we've been trying to do, by continually articulating enrollment as a priority, is making it everyone's job. Have we made it everyone's job? No, and we probably never will. Have we gotten more people involved? Absolutely. Getting the colleges involved in tracking their students and getting their students enrolled and recognizing that that is part of their responsibility is a step in that direction.
Q. Let's move to diversity. I've talked to people who have complimented you on making diversity a priority and hiring Dr. Tony Atwater as YSU's first African-American provost, but they'd like to see it not end there. What do you do next?
A. I think the biggest accomplishment we had on the diversity front was establishing that two of our general education requirements and goals now include diversity courses. The step I would like to see now is to make sure that students get exposed to these courses. We can have the biggest impact on the issue of diversity through the curriculum that we offer.
I also would like to see further developments in more diversity in our student and staff population. We have to continue to work on that. Clearly, in Dr. Atwater, we have an individual who will reflect that. I think we need to develop some further programs of outreach into the community and school districts starting at a younger age, particularly in the central school districts, getting younger people involved in the university.
Q. Your third priority was in developing partnerships with entities and groups outside the campus. How successful have you been in that area?
A. It's an ongoing kind of thing. It's a matter of building relationships. I feel good that I've played a role and contributed to the strategic planning activity of the [Youngstown-Warren Regional] Chamber. I think getting the business community involved and committed to the future of this Valley is very important.
The partnership that I'm very interested in continuing to work on is with the Youngstown and Warren school districts. I've met on several occasions with the superintendents. I intend to have that as one of Tony Atwater's major goals. I see that as one of the major opportunities. I want to reinforce, nurture and continue that.
Q. It was a tough year in Columbus for the state budget, not just for YSU but for all of higher education.
A. Uh-huh. I was at a meeting recently with the governor. There isn't much of a game plan to rectify the funding of higher education.
Q. Why is that?
A. The state is unwilling to consider any options on the revenue-generating side. We're always looking at the other side of the equation and how we can reduce costs. Until you can confront that reality, that it may take additional revenue to support additional investment in higher education . . . then it's going to be difficult.
Q. It had to be a frustrating budget year?
A. There's no question that I was disappointed, but that was buffered by the fact that everybody was going through the same thing. It's not like we were being singled out.
Q. What are the top challenges politically facing YSU when it comes to lobbying Columbus?
A. Politically, the governor says higher education does not have an effective lobby, that we get together in these academic and intellectual discussions, but down in Columbus is the pragmatic aspects of who has the most clout to get the attention of the legislators and the governor.
Individual universities have some clout and can get some initiatives on the docket, but collectively higher education does not have much clout, and that's in spite of the fact that we have 800,000 alumni of public universities that are here in Ohio. Until we mobilize that force and get that force at least saying to their representatives that we think higher education deserves a better shake, then we're going to continually be in this position.
Q. One of the things I've heard people comment about your first year in office is that the pace seemed kind of slow and that at times the university seemed to be in neutral. It wasn't moving back, but it didn't seem to be moving forward, either. Is that a fair observation?
A. From the level of activity in this office, no. But maybe that hasn't been felt on the full campus. Part of that is because when you're building a team and you're involved in a variety of [personnel] searches, it does seem like you're on hold. When we move into this next phase of having some specific goals established, I think everybody will feel better, including myself.
Q. I've had many people say that the pace may have seemed slow because the kinds of issues you are dealing with -- enrollment, diversity, budget -- are longer term ...
A. They're issues that aren't as attractive as opening a new building or breaking ground. I think that's the phase this institution is in. We've got to do some nuts and bolts kinds of things.
Q. When you came to YSU, the plate was already pretty full, with the change in semesters, the budget, the sudden departure of your football coach. So you had to deal with a lot of things right off the bat.
A. One of the things I was advised of early on was that the faculty had gone through this really significant set of planning activities with the semester conversion. So, there needed to be a period of regeneration. I think that was an appropriate phase for the campus to go through.
Q. You have a three-year contract. Do you plan to stay here longer?
A. I learned early on that in even four years you can't have a serious impact on an institution. But, how long I'm here, that will be an issue that's not in my hands.
Q. Granted, this may not be a fair question, but here it goes: Shortly after you came to YSU, the president's job opened at Cleveland State. Would you have rather pursued that job? Do you have any regrets coming to YSU?
A. (Laughs) That is an unfair question. (Laughs.) What my wife and I have found is that this community is far better than its public image in terms of the people and the support and quality of the people we've interacted with. We have absolutely no regrets.