`By RON COLE
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Come next week, Jim Scanlon trades the Mahoning River for the Missouri River, Buckeyes for "Show Me."
After eight years as second-in-charge at Youngstown State University, Scanlon takes over the presidency of Missouri Western State College in St. Joseph.
But before leaving for the land of the Pony Express and Jesse James, Scanlon has a piece of advice for the Mahoning Valley: Don't be so pessimistic.
"The people here don't believe in themselves and their capabilities of being as good as any other community," said Scanlon, YSU provost since 1993. "It's very noticeable to someone who comes from outside and sees a lot of the good things about this community.
"If you want to find reasons to be pessimistic, you are going to find them. But, on the other hand, if you look for reasons to be optimistic, you're going to find them, too, and that's the key to believing that the future is going to be good."
Scanlon, 57, a New York native who came to YSU after eight years as a dean at Clarion University, said he leaves Youngstown proud of the university's academic accomplishments during his tenure.
But, in truth, a part of him wishes he wasn't leaving at all.
Odds-on favorite: When Dr. Leslie Cochran announced his retirement as YSU president in January 1999, many on campus placed Scanlon as the odds-on favorite for the job. Scanlon had worked for Cochran when Cochran was provost of Southeast Missouri State University in the early 1980s.
When YSU trustees instead named Dr. David Sweet as Cochran's successor, some of Scanlon's supporters cried foul.
"Like any human being in that circumstance, I was disappointed, but you get past it," said Scanlon, who quietly slipped into the background during Sweet's transition to the presidency.
Disappointed -- yes. Bitter -- no.
"I understand how these things work," he said. "I understand that there are always lots of good people who are potential for any position and only one good person can get it. There are many other good people who are not chosen."
Explored options: Even before Cochran announced his retirement, Scanlon had thrown his name into some job searches across the country for college and university presidencies.
But Scanlon said he didn't see a university presidency as a necessity to successfully complete his 31-year career in higher education. He was content to stay at YSU unless he found the right match: "I wouldn't move just to move."
Missouri Western, a 5,200-student, 190-faculty college about a half-hour drive north of Kansas City, seemed a good fit, he said.
The students, many of whom are first-generation college students, and the faculty, who are dedicated to undergraduate teaching, are similar to those at YSU.
"I've spent all of my career in the academic side of the house, which I really love," Scanlon said. "It keeps me connected with students and faculty in ways that are very important to me, both personally and professionally. I think one of the challenges a president has is to keep that contact."
Giving credit to his fellow administrators and faculty members, Scanlon said there's no question YSU's academic programs are stronger now than when he arrived.
He noted that nearly all of the programs have earned national accreditation and that the amount of outside academic grants to YSU has grown seven-fold, from $496,666 in 1990 to $3.5 million in 2000.
"That doesn't come easily and it certainly says something about the quality of the faculty and the quality of the programs and the quality of the outcomes for students," he said.
Despite those quality indicators, Scanlon said Mahoning Valley residents still need convinced that YSU is a top-notch school.
"The grass is always greener somewhere else," he said.
Regret: Scanlon says YSU's inability to turn around chronic declines in enrollment was his biggest disappointment.
He noted that YSU's enrollment drop, amounting to 16 percent since 1994, is typical of urban schools across Ohio and the United States: "But that's cold comfort."
Sweet, who took office July 1, has made enrollment his administration's top priority.
"It was a top priority for us, too," Scanlon said. "I think David is working very hard to take leadership on this issue and see if we can help people in the Valley understand the quality that is here."
Scanlon, who has two grown sons, said he'll probably end his career in St. Joseph. He and his wife, Lauren, plan to eventually retire near Morehead City on the North Carolina coast, where they have vacationed annually for the past 15 years and near where Cochran and his wife now live.
He said he'll miss the people of the Mahoning Valley most, and he'll least miss the area's pessimism.
"Youngstown is where East and Midwest meet; St. Joseph is where Midwest meets West," he said. "There's a noticeable difference with the people, the way they look and dress. And there's more optimism."