Missions accomplished please retiring university chief
By HAROLD GWIN
David C. Sweet was struck by a re-accreditation report that showed Youngstown State University was experiencing a declining enrollment and lacked campus diversity when he arrived to begin serving as president in July 2000.
Those challenges prompted him to develop a theme focusing on three areas to improve the university — increasing enrollment, growing diversity and developing partnerships with institutions, business and industry.
It’s been a consistent theme during his 10 years in office, and it has paid results.
YSU enrollment reached 14,682 students last fall, up nearly 25 percent from fall 2000, while minority student numbers reached an all-time high in fall 2009 of 2,900 students, up 125 percent over fall 2000, he said.
During that same period, the number of minority faculty grew 67 percent, and minority staff increased by 23 percent, he said, noting that a 2008-09 re-accreditation report complimented the university for progress made in all of those areas.
Sweet, who came to YSU from his post as dean of the College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University, is retiring June 30. He and his wife, Pat, whom he credits as being a critical element in all of the university’s successes during his tenure, will be relocating to Charlotte, N.C., to be close to family.
It’s best for an outgoing president to move on and make way for the incoming person, he said.
They intend to take advantage of all the opportunities that may surround them — attend lectures, concerts and sporting events and be engaged with a university or universities in some form. They also want to spend some extended time in New York City.
“We’re urbanites, and so we love cities,” he said.
SWEET’S FIRST IMPRESSIONS
Sweet, whose field is planning and development, said he saw that YSU had a beautiful core campus but it was surrounded by blight, creating less than a positive impression. A lot of planning, development and collaboration from a lot of different parties has resulted in improving all sides of the campus, he said.
He said he’s proud of the whole academic enterprise and types of programs the university has been able to develop during his tenure.
Partnerships — such as the collaboration with Wick Neighbors to develop Smoky Hollow — and others with the Youngstown City School District, the downtown business community, the downtown incubator and others were all part of “the theme that I tried to strike upon arriving,” he said.
He also noticed a good deal of cynicism and defeatism — both on campus and in the community — in 2000, and saw a report that characterized Youngstown as “waiting for the future.”
That’s changed, he said.
Youngstown of 2010, and Youngstown State University of 2010 are a much different community and university today, he said, predicting even more dramatic improvement over the next decade.
CHALLENGES WITH LABOR
But not everything has gone as well as he might have hoped.
Labor relations, particularly with the classified staff union at YSU, have, at times, been difficult, he said. The university experienced strikes by both the classified and faculty unions in 2005 that were settled just in time for the start of fall classes.
The university negotiated fair and, in some respects, generous contracts in 2008 that, with other efforts under way, have led to improved relations with “most of the unions, with the one exception,” he said.
“There has been progress. I think the campus community continues to aspire to have further progress, but it has been one of the objects that has been disappointing,” Sweet said.
He also hoped, by now, to have new housing units under construction in the revitalized Smoky Hollow neighborhood, but economic conditions have delayed those projects, he said.
He said he was bothered by the recent flap over the fate of the Youngstown Early College High School program operated on campus in conjunction with the Youngstown city schools.
The YSU Board of Trustees voted this spring to end the university’s affiliation with the program, but later decided to allow a three-year phase-out.
“I feel very strongly that this is an outstanding program. I feel very good that we now have a three-way partnership with the Eastern Gateway Community College and that our students that were a part of that program have been assured continuity in their education,” he said.
Sweet believes YSU is poised to evolve into an urban research university.
“We’ve initiated 14 programs which, I believe, illustrate the ability of the university to respond to the changing job requirements and needs of the community and beyond,” Sweet said, adding that the level of research volume has grown by 157 percent over the past 10 years to more than $9 million annually.
U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Niles, D-17th, has been able to secure some $10 million in federal earmarks to fund new initiatives in the College of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, he said.
Sweet said he is most proud of being able to elevate the vision of students as well as the campus, and in some respects, the community, to the opportunities that can be achieved.
“I’m proud of the over 17,000 students that have graduated from Youngstown State in the past decade, because the evidence is very clear that we provide a great education, and we have many, many outstanding alumni out there who are models and success stories,” he said.
He also takes pride in physical improvements made on campus, citing improvements to buildings, construction of new ones, such as the Andrews Student Recreation and Wellness Center and the Williamson College of Business Administration, the University Courtyard Apartments complex and more.
Sweet said he’s been impressed with the historic generosity of this community, noting the university sought to raise $47 million in its Centennial Campaign but raised more than $50 million.
“We were the only university in the state to raise funds to build a student recreation and wellness center,” he said, noting that students agreed to tax themselves to help meet its ongoing operating costs.
The university has been successful in reaching a $1 million goal in its Annual Fund in each of the last three years, and that growing support is important in light of declining state aid to higher education, he said.
That decline has led to the unpopular act of increasing tuition, but YSU still has the best deal in that it provides a quality education and, among the comprehensive universities in the state, has the lowest tuition, he said.
Sweet said he would like to be remembered as someone who got the opportunity to work with a great group of colleagues to create a vision for the university’s future and then collectively achieved much of that vision.
The evolution and continued growth of YSU as an urban research university is a great opportunity, but it comes with great challenges, such as declining state support. The good news is that people here are finding another way to get it done, he said, referring to the ongoing effort to have Youngstown designated as a state “Hub of Innovation and Opportunity,” a key element of the governor’s economic development plan.
He offered some advice to his successor, Cynthia Anderson, who becomes president July 1.
As a devotee of Don Quixote who “dreamed the impossible dream,” Sweet said he will suggest she dream the impossible dream but add persistence to the mix.
“Develop a vision and develop a plan, but then persist,” he said.