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?