Is Jim Tressel qualified to be YSU president?



He’s spent most of his career on the football field, not in the hallowed halls of academia, but Jim Tressel is on the short lists for two university presidencies.

Tressel, former head football coach at both Youngstown State and Ohio State universities, is one of six semifinalists for the YSU presidency and one of three finalists for the University of Akron presidency. He has served at Akron since 2012 as executive vice president for student success.

His supporters for the YSU job, with its roughly $179 million operating budget, tout his leadership style and fundraising prowess — prized skills in these days of dwindling state dollars.

But is that enough to earn him the title of “university president”?

“I wouldn’t say that fundraising trumps everything else,” said Kevin P. Reilly, presidential

adviser for leadership at the American Council on Education. “Is it increasingly important? Absolutely.”

He pointed to a 2012 survey of university presidents that asked how they spent most of their time. They listed fundraising, budgeting, community relations and planning. Those presidents cited their greatest challenges as faculty relations, and working with legislators and governing boards.

“What they took the most satisfaction from was working with students, administrators and faculty,” Reilly said.

Reilly, who served as president of the University of Wisconsin System for nine years, said a change he saw during his tenure was that chancellors — the equivalent of presidents in Wisconsin’s system — were spending more time off campus raising funds and building relationships with government at all levels.

That leaves the provost, the No. 2 person on campus and the person charged with the university’s academics, to manage day-to-day operations in the president’s absence.

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Howland, D-13th, wrote a letter last February to YSU trustees signed by 31 business and community leaders, endorsing Tressel as president.

“He has the relationships and obvious leadership skills to build both the financial and organizational support for the YSU initiatives that will grow the university and broader economy,” the letter said.

Bruce Zoldan, president and CEO of B.J. Alan Co., is one of those business leaders. He pointed to Tressel’s charisma, leadership skills and ability to motivate.

“I had him as a speaker to my company when I had 10 stores way back when,” Zoldan said.

Tressel spoke to managers about how to be respectful, positive, successful human beings. It’s something those managers still talk about today, he said.

“That’s the type of person we need at YSU,” Zoldan said.

He acknowledged that others believe someone with an academic background is more suited to the position and he doesn’t discount the value of those skills.

“You’re never going to be able to hire one person with every quality and asset that’s needed,” Zoldan said.

He said that when he’s spoken with Tressel, the former coach has talked about YSU’s need to boost enrollment and says that will be one of his goals if he gets the job.

Zoldan maintains Tressel is the right person for the YSU presidency.

“For me, I have no doubt in my mind, if he stays at YSU for three years, or five or six years, he will bring such prestige and honor to the university and help it recover from the quagmire of Dr. [Randy] Dunn,” who resigned last month after only eight months as YSU president to become president of Southern Illinois University.

Tressel “came from here, and he’s been successful everywhere he’s gone,” Zoldan added.

Tressel has declined to speak publicly about his candidacy for either job.

Susan Resneck Pierce, former president of the University of Puget Sound, who is now a columnist, president of SRP Consulting and author of the book “On Being Presidential,” advises colleges and universities on planning and effective board and presidential performance, governance, curriculum, development and other matters.

“I think that a president needs to be more than the chief development officer of their institution,” she said. “For someone to be in my judgment really effective as a president, as part of the president’s role, they have to be able to understand and articulate and advance the institution’s mission. They need to have a firm understanding of the role of the faculty. The faculty is the heart and soul of any institution.”

One of the interesting things about fundraising, she said, is that the person doing it needs to understand the needs of the institution and what donors care about.

“The challenges of being a university president today are daunting,” Pierce said.

They have to raise money. If they’re at a public institution, they’re working with the Legislature, they’re working in general with the public, “but also, in reality, along with the board you’re responsible for the health and integrity of the institution,” she said.

There’s also the complexity of how you allocate resources. You have to inspire very careful strategic planning, and you have to inspire the confidence of the faculty, Pierce said.

Annette Burden, president of the Ohio Education Association-YSU, the union representing YSU faculty, said the university’s unions hope whomever trustees choose as president, he or she is willing to work with the unions in trying to identify and address problems and not view them as adversaries.

“We hope we have the opportunity for open discussion, transparency and the opportunity to give them our help — whether that be Jim Tressel or any other people [who] are on that list,” she said.

Chet Cooper, president of YSU’s faculty senate, said the trend has been for boards to choose either a president with a background in academics or one with executive or administrative background whose expertise is in fundraising.

“It’s not clear to me which kind we’re going to get this time,” he said.

Stephen Weeks, president of the University of Akron faculty union, is blunt about his views regarding the idea of Tressel leading that university.

In his application letter for the Akron job, Tressel highlighted his experience at UA as a strength for the position.

“Maybe we don’t need a smooth transition,” Weeks said. “Maybe we need someone who can come in with a fresh look at things and some reprioritization.”

The University of Akron is dealing with a budget deficit, and an outside person might be better able to address it, he said.

“Of the people I know, no one is really backing him,” Weeks said. “From what I hear, he was a very good coach, but it’s not the same as running a university — which is a $400 million institution. It seems that people who are really into sports think he’s a really good guy.”

Tressel is scheduled to visit UA all day Thursday, meeting with campus and community groups.

YSU is expected to narrow its list to three finalists this week. They will be scheduled to visit campus next month.

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