Tressel and the art of caring, and not caring


Vindy Talk Radio hosted Youngstown State University President Jim Tressel recently to talk about his first year on the job.

I needled him a bit that he is only in second place for how many times his name appeared in The Vindicator in the last 12 months.

His 240ish appearances were a distant second to Youngstown Mayor John A. McNally’s 350ish appearances. It was merely a light observation to launch a one-hour chat.

An hour later, as we walked out of the building, he made reference to the second-place one-liner I had about forgotten.

“You know that second place you noted,” is about what he said. “We are behind [at YSU], and it’s not a place I like to be.”

Tressel has been on the job one year as of this week. It’s probably been the most-watched game in town.

In a story written two weeks back by Vindicator reporter Denise Dick, various leaders gave Tressel high grades for Year 1, among them U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Howland, D-13th (“a solid A”) and Carole Weimer, YSU trustee chairwoman (an A).

Not surprisingly, finding anyone to go on record with a poor grade was impossible for Denise.

YSU’s Association of Classified Employees union voted “no confidence” on Tressel and the board in June, just after the board forced a contract on that union. Connie Frisby, president of the union, declined to grade Tressel’s performance.

Though one year is way too early to judge a record, I think it’s clear that this will be a game-changer presidency for better or for worse. I’m going to put my money on better at this time. Gone already is the crowd complaint that “a football coach and a nonacademic can’t be president.” I think the narrative has shifted from that elitist charge to something more normal – a rightful president and his tough decisions.

In that arena, I find what I respect most of the first year of Tressel’s reign – his knack for not caring.

Now, I don’t mean “not caring” as in an absence of humanity.

Let me explain:

“Freakonomics” is a website and movement by two guys – a Chicago economist and a New York journalist. They explore life’s hidden economies – cheating teachers, bizarre baby names, self-dealing Realtors, crack-selling mama’s boys, community effects on sex-offender penalties and more. They’re gurus of things that affect us that aren’t as obvious as laws, taxes and death.

One thing they dissected brilliantly is the cost of caring. They talked about the time we waste and the poor decisions that leaders can make when they care too much. People and leaders who care too much, they said, are prone to make decisions based not on what they believe in, but what will not irk others.

What I see in key decisions Tressel has made is his willingness to not care about the flak a decision will no doubt incur. The decision to promote Martin Abraham to provost was an early example. Tressel inherited a hiring process and finalists for the school’s No. 2 post. He politely honored the process, and then went with Abraham – an internal guy who’s equally brilliant and disdained – and who did not even apply for that job. Ironically, he had applied for Tressel’s very job.

There are other Year 1 examples, including hiring the Pellini brothers, enforcing an ACE contract, eliminating long-standing job titles, erasing $7 million from a deficit that just a year ago seemed paralyzing, and offering larger paychecks to lesser titled new positions.

The ACE contract move earned sort of a compliment from The Vindicator’s Bertram de Souza, which might be Tressel’s unofficial biggest Year 1 accomplishment. De Souza was not an enormous fan of the Tressel hiring a year ago. Here’s what he wrote a few weeks back:

“Unlike seven years ago, when then-president of Youngstown State University, Dr. David Sweet, and the board of trustees kow-towed to the union representing accountants, secretaries, clerks and others on campus, last week, a largely different group of trustees and the new president of YSU, James R. Tressel, threw down the gauntlet on the labor negotiations with the Association of Classified Employees. The message was bold, clear and necessary: Get real.”

Another controversy also showcases the “care” principle.

A Columbus company has been tapped to build new housing on campus. The company was picked despite a local company, NYO Property Group, already having millions invested in current and future downtown and campus housing. NYO is led by the Marchionda family, who are as much a part of the YSU fabric as the threads on Pete the Penguin’s scarf. The board vote to go with the Tressel-endorsed Columbus company was a cringe-worthy showing – 3 yes, 2 no and 2 abstentions. It barely passed.

NYO is still simmering, with Tressel well aware. But he’s politely adamant that the decided path is a prudent one while in the same breath professing deep interest in NYO’s future.

That ability to decide against a group he cares about and not care if they react is a unique character trait. Tressel’s easiest path would have been to go with NYO.

So NYO simmers; board members simmer over this and other various issues; the campus community simmers as well; and Tress rolls on.

And that is where I think years of competing in the athletic arena separates a Tressel presidency from a traditional candidate.

Winning has to happen now.

When the Columbus housing group originally proposed its project and a 2017 time frame, Tressel said that was not going to work. “I want shovels now,” he’s reported to have said in turning away the original 2017 plan. Shovels are supposed to turn this year.

Winning now is the mindset in play. In Abraham, for example, if it had been an outside provost, there’s a year to get acclimated, a year to know this, a year to know that, etc.

One YSU friend offered this about the “plow now” style:

“In Tressel and Abraham, YSU has two individuals who seem more concerned with getting things done than how things are done. At universities, process and how you treat people are as important as the outcome. It will be interesting to see how this tension plays out over the next few years.”

I think many in the private sector would argue that public sector process has suffocated progress. I’m one of them.

“How it’s done” works great at national conferences. But “done” works great at local lunch counters.

“Done” from Tressel has shown in Year 1 that it does not discriminate who it impacts. It just moves.

Said Tressel on making things move now:

“I’ve got a three-year contract to get this done. If I had a five-year contract, maybe I’d move slower.”

I don’t believe that at all.

Second-place is not for some.

Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes e-mails about stories and our newspaper. E-mail him at tfranko@vindy.com. He blogs, too, on vindy.com. Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.

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