Many years have passed since Jim Tressel worked at Youngstown State University, but you wouldn’t have known it last week as he delved into the strengths of the urban institution and detailed the challenges that await him as the next president of the university.
Tressel’s comments to reporters after he signed a letter of understanding on the terms of his three-year contract made it clear that although he has been away, he never really severed his ties with Youngstown State and the Mahoning Valley.
He answered questions about the budget, the decline in student enrollment, the need to improve the retention and graduation rates and the importance of collaboration with the community and other colleges and universities in this part of the state.
But it wasn’t just the former football coach’s words that were music to his many supporters’ ears — and gave his detractors pause.
Tressel’s decision to accept a salary of $300,000 — less than what the board of trustees of YSU had offered him — has resonated on and off campus.
His predecessor, Dr. Randy Dunn, who resigned after only eight months on the job to take over the presidency of Southern Illinois University, was paid $375,000 a year.
Dunn’s predecessor, Dr. Cynthia Anderson, who had risen through the ranks during her 40 years at YSU, was paid $400,000 in the last year of her contract before she departed a year ago. Anderson had served three years as president.
In accepting a lesser amount in salary than what the trustees offered, Tressel made it clear that he wasn’t sending any kind of a message to the faculty and staff about YSU’s dire financial condition and the need for sacrifice.
“Ellen and I know how lucky we are,” he said. “We know we have a lot to prove. It’s up to us to make a tremendous impact on this region.”
Mrs. Tressel, a YSU graduate, is the daughter of Frank and Norma Watson, who are major contributors to the university and are well-known for their philanthropy.
While Tressel’s first public appearance as the next president of YSU — he formally begins his duties July 1 — was a hit, the real test of his abilities will come when he takes on the major challenges confronting the institution.
Like his two predecessors, Dunn and Anderson, he will have to deal with an operating budget deficit, long-term debt, declining enrollment, and the reality that state funding for higher education is based on retention and graduation rates.
Tressel also will have to tackle the labor contracts for two of the employee groups on campus, faculty and classified employees.
Finally, the new president and the trustees will have to fill vacancies in several top administrative positions, including provost and vice president for finance and administration. Indeed, the only vice presidency that won’t be vacant when Tressel takes over is that for student affairs.
The new president’s supporters point to his proven record as a leader, a motivator and a bridge-builder. Tressel will need all those abilities and more as he charts a course for YSU that not only reverses the downward trend but builds for the future.