There undoubtedly was relief in the Mahoning Valley with the announcement Thursday that James P. Tressel will remain president of Youngstown State University for at least one more year beginning July 1, 2017.
Why relief? Because the delay by Tressel to make his intentions known was cause for concern among his supporters on campus and in the community.
Historically, YSU presidents have used the start of the third year of their three-year contracts to negotiate extensions.
Tressel’s contract went into effect July 1, 2014, and expires June 30, 2017. There are reports that trustees had reached out to the president this summer to discuss his future, but he kept delaying the talks.
That’s why last week’s announcement was greeted with enthusiasm in the Mahoning Valley.
Tressel is one of the most popular public officials in the region – not only because of his personality, but due to his record of accomplishments as YSU’s president.
He has taken on the myriad challenges confronting the urban, four-year university, in particular, and higher education, in general, with aplomb and a sense of purpose.
Indeed, his comments when his contract extension was announced reveals the philosophy behind his presidency: “I am excited about this opportunity – and to be honest, there is nothing more fun than challenges.”
The word “fun” is not often used by the presidents of Ohio’s public universities and colleges who have to deal with the loss of state funding for higher education.
Not only are public dollars from Columbus difficult to come by, but Republican Gov. John R. Kasich and the Republican-controlled General Assembly have been clear that universities and colleges cannot make up the revenue loss by increasing tuition. The state has established caps on tuition hikes.
The governor and legislative leaders have also said they expect institutions of higher learning to adopt cost-cutting measures and to end duplication of services and academic course work.
TRESSEL EXUDES EXCITEMENT
And yet, Tressel maintains a positive attitude as he deals with the internal pressures with regard to the operating budgets and enrollment, and the external ones triggered by state government’s reassessment of higher education.
“We are excited about the team we have put into place and the opportunities that exist here at YSU and in the Mahoning Valley,” Tressel said. “We have certainly accomplished much, but we have much more work ahead of us. Ellen and I look forward to working with everyone on campus and throughout the community to increase our excellence in all that we do.”
Ellen Tressel, the president’s wife, is active in YSU’s Pink Ribbon Cheer Classic, which raises money for breast cancer awareness, and in numerous community organizations in the Valley. She is a graduate of Youngstown State and is the daughter of Frank and Norma Watson, leading philanthropists and major financial supporters of the university.
It is noteworthy that in agreeing to a year’s extension of his $300,000 annual contract, the president of YSU turned down a $75,000 pay raise offer.
Carole Weimer, chairwoman of the board of trustees, was generous in her praise of Tressel:
“In his two and half years at the helm of YSU, Jim Tressel has led efforts to increase enrollment and retention, raise a record amount of gifts, balance our budget and re-energize the campus and the community. We look forward to President Tressel’s continued leadership as we steadfastly pursue excellence across campus and the entire region.”
Without a doubt, the enrollment initiative developed by Tressel and Gary D. Swegan, associate vice president for enrollment planning and management, is the administration’s most notable accomplishment.
Three months ago, the university announced that enrollment at the open-access institution in downtown Youngstown was up 285 students – 2.3 percent – over the Fall 2015 semester. YSU had 12,756 students enrolled for the fall, compared with 12,471 a year ago. It represents the first fall-to-fall increase since 2010.
Recruitment of students and an increase in the retention rate of sophomores have provided YSU with a solid foundation as it strives to build its reputation as a leading STEM institution and develops the Mahoning Valley Innovation and Commercialization Center.
Tressel’s continued presence on campus at least until June 2018 will provide much needed continuity at YSU.