By Denise Dick
Some of the strongest supporters of Jim Tressel’s appointment as Youngstown State University president lauded his fundraising skills as a way to address the university’s financial challenges, but the president-designee says that’s not the most- significant part of the solution.
“The biggest financial lever we have is student retention,” Tressel said during a Friday interview with Vindicator editors and a reporter.
Each percentage of students equals $1 million, he pointed out.
“At the University of Akron, I tell my staff, don’t look at retention as affecting the budget; look at it as what we’re supposed to do,” Tressel said.
YSU’s enrollment has declined since 2011, and the university has been seeking ways to keep students in school.
Fall 2013 enrollment saw 13,395 students with 13,813 students in fall 2012, 14,540 in fall 2011 and 15,194 in fall 2010.
“Our financial lever is not development and it’s not state subsidy,” Tressel said. “Development is the second most-important thing to help with finances.”
Tressel takes office July 1 as YSU’s ninth president. Trustees selected him after an accelerated search after the surprise resignation in March of Randy J. Dunn, who served as YSU president for eight months. Dunn left to become president of Southern Illinois University.
Soon after Dunn’s resignation, a group of business and community leaders mounted a campaign, urging trustees to name Tressel as YSU president.
Tressel, 61, former head football coach at YSU and Ohio State University, shrugs off the idea circulating on social media and media websites that he will be a white knight for the community.
“Youngstown doesn’t need saved any more than it’s a confused world we live in,” he said.
Times are tough in higher education. He referred to a lecture he attended recently by one of the authors of “Just Growth,” a book that studies the policies and situations in metropolitan areas that have seen equitable growth.
Though Ohio’s state universities may have to compete for state funding, they can also work together and learn from one another, he said.
“We may stumble, and we may fumble, but we’ll play again,” he said.
Tressel says he’ll explain the compelling stories of YSU and its students to people in Columbus making funding decisions, but he recognizes that other institutions have those stories, too, and the money is limited.
The first step to improving YSU’s graduation and completion rates and its enrollment is for everyone on campus to believe they have a role in that, he said. The next step is for everyone to do their part.
That doesn’t assume that people aren’t doing their jobs now, Tressel said. “You always have to assume you can do it better,” he said.
Tressel resigned from his OSU coaching job amid a scandal involving players receiving cash and tattoos for memorabilia. He was accused of withholding information from university officials and National Collegiate Athletic Association investigators.
He acknowledges that’s all part of his record, but he believes the press’s definition of him is less important than the definition of those with whom he’s worked.
“The most-important definition to me is the definition of the people I’ve spent time with, who I’ve worked directly with,” Tressel said. “Someone who is defining from afar — again I understand — but what’s important to me are those I have served with, worked with, [and] tried to serve. I think that’s what’s important.”
He said his job isn’t to find fault. “I want to be where people would like me to help them,” Tressel said.
He says he can’t do anything about the past, but he can learn from it.
“I’ve never questioned my intentions,” Tressel said. “I’ve questioned my performance, of course.”
After making a mistake, a person can decide to go lie on a beach or decide to continue to serve, he said.
As the university faces a projected $7.9 million deficit going into fiscal year 2015, which starts July 1, Tressel recognizes the need to move quickly. He believes, however, building consensus and vetting ideas remain crucial.
“We are racing against the clock, but deliberate haste is something we have to do,” Tressel said.
Tressel has served as executive vice president for student success at the University of Akron. He also was a finalist for UA’s presidency, but that school’s trustees chose a different candidate.
He’s happy to return to the city and university where he spent much of his career.
“It’s been great,” Tressel said. “You ride around town, you think back to all the memories, the people and then you run into people. ... [There are] not enough hours in the day, which is a problem for all of us, but it’s been fun.”