CENTRAL STATE Man revives school's image

The Buckeye State's only historically black public university brings its road show to the Mahoning Valley.
YOUNGSTOWN -- John Garland remembers a time when black families gathered around the kitchen table to talk about sending their children to college, and three names surfaced -- Howard University in Washington, D.C., Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., and Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio.
"Central State had a reputation as being one of the premier historically black colleges and universities in the country," Garland said.
A financial and political crisis in the mid-1990s, however, knocked Central State out of that elite league. The state intervened. Rumors spread that the school near Dayton would close. Enrollment nose-dived.
Garland, a Central State alumnus who took over the university's presidency four years ago, said it's his job to restore the school's lost prominence.
'Vision': "That's my vision, and that's our mission," he said. "We are on our way. We will regain our glory."
Garland brings CSU's story to Youngstown this week as the university's board of trustees meets Friday morning at Youngstown State University. A reception for local CSU alumni is tonight at the Holiday Inn MetroPlex in Liberty.
The visit is one of a series Garland and CSU trustees, including Youngstown attorney Paul M. Dutton, are making across Ohio to get the word out that the 114-year-old university is alive and well.
"Our future is bright," Garland said about Ohio's only historically black public university. "The discussions about our viability, I think, are dead."
That wasn't the case a few years ago.
In the mid-1990s, allegations surfaced that the school, founded in 1887 with 16,000 alumni nationwide, was running sizable deficits, that its financial books were a mess and its dormitories unfit.
There were problems with academic accreditation as well as the school's federal student loan and athletic programs.
Numbers: Enrollment dropped from more than 3,200 in 1992 to fewer than 1,000 five years later.
In 1996, then Gov. George V. Voinovich forced the ouster of CSU trustees and appointed a new board.
"There's no question that the institution was in a meltdown," said Dutton, a former member of the Ohio Board of Regents appointed to CSU's new board.
"It was in financial disarray. It had been operating on budget deficits for years. There were programmatic problems. There were allegations of fraud and theft. There was a deteriorating physical plant."
In September 1997, the new board hired Garland, a high school dropout and Vietnam veteran who received a political science degree from CSU and later a law degree from Ohio State University.
"The campus and culture was one of a dispirited work force, faculty, students and administration," Garland said. "There was a climate of people who had been through a lot in terms of negative media attention."
Dutton said the turmoil on campus and in Columbus, where some legislators called for the school to close, created "a vicious downward spiral" that portrayed the situation as even worse than it was.
Four years later, the university is back on track, Dutton and Garland said.
When the academic year opened Tuesday, enrollment was 1,309. The school, which has a 95 percent black student population, has 450 incoming freshmen, up from 89 in 1997, Garland said.
Plans: Finances have stabilized, academic programs are restructured and student services have expanded. Plans call for new dormitories and a new education building.
"The place is a vibrant institution," Garland said. "It's what it was when I was a student here. It's a place where people want to come, where folks feel we've restored the CSU family."
Trustees also recently launched efforts to restore the football program.
"It's a strong symbol to our alumni, the students and the community that Central State is back," Garland said.
"We're the biggest secret in Ohio. I went to school here. I met my wife here. She's an alumnus also. I have a lot of passion for this place."

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