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New president of YSU faces a full slate of challenges



Published: Sun, May 19, 2013 @ 12:00 a.m.

In the months leading up to the selection of a new president for Youngstown State University, long-time supporters of the urban institution talked about the need for a “transformational leader,” one who understands the demands on higher education in the Mahoning Valley and the state.

YSU’s trustees obviously believe they have found such a leader in Randy Dunn, former president of Murray State University in Kentucky. Dunn, who has a doctorate of education from the University of Illinois, was the unanimous choice of the trustees.

“When we interviewed Dr. Dunn in Pittsburgh, he was a great communicator,” said Dr. Sudershan Garg, chairman of the board. “He has a clear vision and a lot of energy.”

NEW LEADER MUST ACT SWIFTLY

Given the problems confronting the university, foremost of which is the decline in enrollment, Dunn will have to quickly articulate his vision. There isn’t time for extended study.

As for his energy, the former Illinois state schools superintendent and a professor at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, will be put to the test quickly, given that YSU will soon be in the thick of contract negotiations with the faculty union.

President Cynthia Anderson, who is retiring after three years at the helm and 40 years on the staff of Youngstown State, was able to win concessions from various unions on campus.

Now, however, there are rumblings that faculty members expect an increase in pay in the new contract.

That will be a challenge, given the loss in revenue as a result of the drop in enrollment and a reduction in state funding.

There was a time in the not too distant past when 75 percent of the university’s budget came from the state; today, only 20 percent is funneled from Columbus.

And that money has a lot of strings attached to it. A special commission appointed by Gov. John Kasich has developed a new funding formula for public universities and colleges. Dollars will be awarded based on the number of students who actually complete a degree, instead of the number of full-time students enrolled.

In addition, the governor is pushing for bachelor’s degrees to be earned in four years, instead of the six it typically takes many students today.

The changes that have been put in place on the state level could result in YSU’s losing state dollars. In-state undergraduate tuition and fee increases will be restricted to 2 percent over what YSU charged the previous year.

The university has increased tuition at least 3 percent a year for the past four years and also has boosted student fees.

Thus, Dr. Dunn, who takes over July 1, will have to quickly assess finances and determine what YSU can afford in salaries and benefits.

In the past, we have urged the unions to agree to a one-year pact with wage and benefit freezes so the administration and trustees can find a way of dealing with the numerous pressures on the budget.

While we recognize that the current contract has not been employee friendly, we would remind the faculty, staff and administrators that having a job coming out of a national recession is an achievement in and of itself.

Many private-sector workers have not only taken pay cuts and given back benefits but have had their pensions frozen. That’s unheard of in the public sector, where taxpayers’ dollars are matched with the employees’ contributions.

Today’s economic realities demand that the public sector, which is financed by the taxpayers, find a way of living within its means.

Youngstown State University is an open- admission institution that has traditionally accepted anyone who has graduated from high school or has a General Education Diploma.

But with higher education in Ohio undergoing major changes, the status quo no longer is tenable.

DUNN’S MAJOR PRIORITIES

Dunn, in meetings with members of the university and Valley communities, and in an interview with The Vindicator, identified three priorities that will launch his presidency: growing the enrollment; improving the retention rate of students; and, paying close attention to the budget.

Dunn also is acutely aware of the role YSU plays in the region.

“The Mahoning Valley is critically tied to the university and vice versa,” he told The Vindicator. “That’s a defining element of what a great university is.”

With the Valley experiencing an economic revival — high technology is an important element in the transformation of the workplace — the knowledge and expertise that Youngstown State has to offer through its Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics college and business programs, for instance, require the next president to be a bridge builder. From his comments, Dunn clearly understands that.

The university’s future is, to a significant extent, determined by what occurs on the state level. But there are many things that can be done on campus to not only justify its existence, but to answer the question being asked by the stakeholders: What is unique about YSU?


Comments

1BufordTJustice(7 comments)posted 1 year, 2 months ago

When Leslie Cochran was president of YSU, academic standards reversed their previous downtrend. Cochran espoused the philosophy that the customers of Youngstown State were the employers that hired YSU students. This gradual rise in academic standards caused a steadily declining enrollment under his tenure as president.
When Cochran retired for medical reasons, the YSU Board of Trustees placed enrollment growth as a top priority when seeking his replacement. David Sweet, Cochran’s successor, fulfilled the Board’s mandate, and enrollment at YSU steadily increased during his tenure as president. Unfortunately, this increase in enrollment came at the expense of decreased academic standards, and YSU pursued a policy of encouraging the application and acceptance of students lacking the intellectual or motivational capital for doing college-level work. In effect, the philosophy of YSU had shifted from viewing employers as customers to one of viewing students as customers. In the short run, Sweet’s managerial philosophy was viewed as a success because of increasing enrollment. In the long run, however, the lowering of academic standards produced a backlash from employers in the form of fewer and fewer high-quality companies expressing an interest in YSU students. Furthermore, those employers who were willing to interview YSU students began placing higher and higher minimum grade point average requirements for interviewees.
The brief tenure of the Anderson administration at YSU occurred during a reversal of the upward enrollment trend. This reversal occurred for several reasons, including fiscal and political issues, labor unrest, and the growing perception among students and parents that the value of a YSU degree isn’t what it was previously. This reversal would have occurred regardless of who was the YSU president.
University Trustees are political appointees who were generally chosen because the Governor believes they will pursue policies that conform to his/her political ideology. Immediate results are desired, and the long-term view is hardly ever taken into account when considering the consequences of steering higher education in one direction or another. President-elect Randy Dunn had to say words that were agreeable to the ears of the YSU Board of Trustees in order to secure his position. In order to maximize the likelihood of his reappointment as YSU President in three years, he will need to show the current declining trend in enrollment has been slowed or reversed. Here again, one sees the conflict between philosophies that emphasize short-term results at the expense of the long-term view.
YSU needs to “bite the bullet,” and begin thinking of ways to enhance the reputation of a YSU degree, even if the short-term consequences of toughening academic standards result in declining enrollment. In the long run, enrollment will rise for the right reasons, and the long-term viability of YSU as an academic institution will be secured.

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