By EMMALEE C. TORISK
On a late spring visit to Youngstown State University, weeks before the board of trustees unanimously selected him as the university’s eighth president and months before he officially assumed that position, Randy Dunn already was eager to start working.
He had his work cut out for him.
With drops in enrollment in each of the past three years, coupled with severe cuts to state funding and a deficit millions of dollars deep, the university was at a pivotal — and precarious — point.
And Dunn, even then, was well aware that the way in which he proceeded in addressing those critical issues would affect more than the future of the university. It likely would influence the future of the region, in the midst of its own resurgence, as a whole.
“Given the import of YSU to the city and to the Valley, how we navigate some of these challenges will dictate what happens to us, and the entire area’s going to be watching that,” Dunn said. “We can do all we want around economic-development initiatives, but if people see YSU as a struggling, marginal institution, we won’t get the growth that we have to have for this Valley to come back. It just won’t happen.”
For his integral role in molding those intertwined futures, Dunn has been selected by The Vindicator’s staff and editors as the person most likely to have the biggest impact on 2014.
Dunn said he appreciates the challenge, or “the opportunity as a president to come in and do something that’s powerful — that moves the needle on an area for the better.” After all, as a university president, the last thing he wanted to do was take the helm of an institution that was staid and set in its ways, then simply maintain it.
His goals were much, much larger and were fueled by something he called “a ‘can-do’ spirit,” which he noticed on his first visit to the area. It was then that Dunn realized those who lived and worked here were honest and frank about the challenges facing the region, but also were ready to tackle them and “make it work.”
This, he said, is one of the primary characteristics that attracted him to YSU and is the spirit that guides his presidency.
Among the goals for his tenure is, first and foremost, figuring out how to stabilize enrollment, which he hopes will include some growth in the next year or two. Already, a great deal of work is being done — ranging from “the materials and information we’re using for recruitment” to “the outreach we’re undertaking” — to build YSU’s enrollment numbers.
“The outcome of that entire process, of course, is a big deal for what the university looks like and the economic role we play in the Valley,” Dunn said. “It’s why we take that job so seriously.”
But if that growth doesn’t happen, even after “some very strong, good-faith efforts,” the next step is to determine the “right-sizing of the university” — or how to “rework a business model that’s more geared around serving roughly 13,000 students” rather than 14,000 or 15,000 students.
Another aspect of that reworking is what Dunn refers to as better “telling the story of our excellence” — or building a “stronger regional and national profile,” which will help the university in numerous ways, including student and employee recruitment, along with grant and partnership opportunities.
To do this, YSU must promote and cultivate its “many, many areas of excellence,” and show that the university is not merely a “second or third choice of state institution,” he said. In fact, YSU may be a destination of choice — not a default choice — for a number of students, but the university simply must do a better job of demonstrating its quality and value.
Like enrollment, this problem of recognition is not something that can be solved overnight, Dunn said. Perceptions can’t be changed simply with the flipping of a switch, he added, explaining that it requires a concentrated effort over a length of time.
“Higher ed works in ways where people look at a record of accomplishment, look at the profile of an institution, and over time, come to a new way of thinking about it. That’s what we’ve got to do here,” Dunn said. “But it starts with ourselves before we get others to subscribe to that way of thinking.”
He noted, however, that through working very hard and very smart, the university already is seeing “some traction in these strategic directions” — and is moving closer to stabilizing YSU’s business model.
The university may not be able to address and solve all of its challenges within the next year, but Dunn is hopeful that every effort will “elevate and grow and nurture the Valley in ways that can be helpful for the future.” The next few years are critical, he noted.
“If we can pick the lock on how to do this work I’m describing, it’s going to pay big dividends,” Dunn said. “If we don’t, it doesn’t mean the university’s going to disappear — it’s not — but it means we will have lost and will continue to lose opportunities that could exist for us to add to the renaissance of this area.”
Melissa Wasser, a YSU student trustee, elaborated on this “key moment,” explaining that both YSU and the region are in great positions for Dunn to take them to new heights.
Dunn has so many goals for the university and already has taken numerous steps in the right direction, Wasser said, explaining that she is looking forward to seeing how these decisions will shape the next year, the first full year of Dunn’s presidency.
“This year will really be a great starting point to see how big these goals are, and if he can achieve them, which I think he will,” Wasser said. “We picked the right person for president.”
Dr. Sudershan Garg, chairman of the YSU Board of Trustees, noted, too, that he’s pleased with Dunn, particularly his understanding of “the pulse of the university and pulse of the people working at the university,” along with that of the board.
Dunn is working hard, Garg said, adding that he’s hopeful that many of those objectives Dunn has touted since the start of his tenure will come to fruition in the next year, benefiting both the university and the region.
“As the university stabilizes and gets better, it will have a great impact on the community at large, and the city will get better,” Garg said. “He’s very, very impressive. Everything is positive so far.”