YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- The trustees of Youngstown State University met in executive session Thursday, a lengthy meeting to discuss personnel and employment that began at 3:25 p.m. and wasn’t expected to end until 7 p.m. or so.
The focus of the trustees’ discussion, believed to be the president, Randy J. Dunn, sat with them at the outset of the closed-door meeting but then stood in the hall outside talking with YSU general counsel Holly Jacobs before sitting and chatting with the audience as staff, students and reporters waited for the trustees to reconvene.
About 4:45 p.m., the chairman of the trustees, Dr. Sudershan K. Garg, emerged to advise the audience that he and his colleagues expected to continue their deliberations another 1½ to two hours before reconvening in public session to immediately adjourn.
The trustees would take no action, Garg stated.
Much has happened since the trustees met Monday night to accept Dunn’s resignation and, under the terms of his employment contract, allow him to continue in office 180 days, or until Aug. 16. Dunn has accepted the presidency of Southern Illinois University.
Late Tuesday afternoon, a letter was hand-delivered to the board from U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-13 Ohio, who gathered the support and collected the signatures of 31 prominent Valley business, organized labor and community leaders in a Draft Jim Tressel for YSU president movement.
The trustees as individuals were careful to say nothing Thursday about the presidential search they said Monday night would soon get underway or react to Ryan’s initiative.
Ryan, D-13 Ohio, said he has had no contact with Tressel, now a vice president at the University of Akron, and does not know whether Tressel is interested in the job but suspects he might be.
"When you have an opportunity to capture someone like that for a position of so much magnitude and so much influence, you've got to take the chance and ask questions later," he said Thursday. “If you’re interested in being a college president, there’s very few college presidents that would walk onto a university with this level of broad-based support from business folks, union folks, community leaders, students, the general public. So I think it’s a unique opportunity for us and I hope he’s interested in it.”
The congressman said Tressel came to mind the moment he heard that Dunn was planning to leave, and within a few hours he had received several unsolicited text messages expressing similar sentiments. He then began contacting various business and community leaders to gauge their support and ask them to sign on to the letter he directed his office to prepare.
Ryan and the others who signed on to the letter supporting a Tressel presidency point to the personal leadership qualities of the former football coach, who won four national titles at YSU and the national championship at Ohio State University, where he coached until a memorabilia scandal involving a group of his players ended his coaching career, at least temporarily.
In the Mahoning Valley, Tressel’s support was frequently sought for community campaigns, and since leaving YSU for the post at OSU in 2001 he has continued to make contributions and return to the area to support local causes.
“He’s a winner and he’s a leader. He’s a strategic thinker. He’s a bridge builder, a consensus builder and he’s a great communicator,” Ryan said. He also is “a great motivator,” the congressman added. “He inspires the people around him.”
Among those who signed the letter are Tom Humphries, president/CEO of the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber, and Carol Potter, president/CEO of the Better Business Bureau. Both also cited Tressel’s leadership qualities and experience.
Humphries said the YSU presidency is the dominant topic in his conversations across the Mahoning Valley, and others have observed a greater effort should have been made to recruit Tressel during the last presidential search, and now is the opportunity.
“He brings the experience of being here in the past and he’s a proven commodity,” Humphries remarked. “I don’t think you need to just look at coaching but look at the man himself and his character, his ability to lead, his ability to be able to gather people to work on common issues. I think he’s a well-rounded leader the community could use.”
Dunn’s decision to leave YSU after just seven months on the job is more a reflection on an individual than it is on the university, Humphries continued. “In fairness, I think the board [of trustees] has to share some of that responsibility,” he said. “They are the ones that oversee the process and make the final selections, so they have accountability in this process.”
Although Humphries said he is not qualified to comment on what transpired between Dunn and the board, the decision to retain Dunn for up to six months following his resignation is not how it would have been handled in the private sector.
“What usually happens is you relieve the president of their responsibilities at that time, and the chairman steps in and operates the business until a successor is named,” he said. “That might sound cold and callous but you have to look at the 3,000 employees at YSU and the mission. Are you serving the emplyees and the mission.”
The BBB's Potter confirmed that the YSU presidency is a dominant topic throughout the community. “You don’t get more than two sentences into it before Jim Tressel’s name comes up, and it’s ‘What do we have to do to make this happen?’ ” she said.
Potter, who recalled working with Tressel to form the YSU chapter of the Fellowship for Christian Athletes, cited the personal dynamics he brings. “If you are ever in a room and Jim walks in, his energy level and focus is so unique,” she said. “He can convene the top people here and understand the key programs to our economy [and] our culture as well as the student population. He’s an ideal candidate.”
Ryan, Humphries and Potter all downplayed concerns regarding Tressel’s academic credentials. Typically university presidents hold doctorates, while Tressel has a master’s degree.
Ryan used a metaphor relating to Tressel’s background as a head coach. “The leader at the top has a different skill set that’s needed,” he said. “He’s not the running back coach or the offensive coach where you really have to dig in. You’re seeing the whole game, the whole field. ... [Tressel] has a gift for seeing the world that way but knowing the details enough to be able to put that vision into action.”
Putting in place a “strong provost” would cover “the academic side,” Ryan said, and free the president for responsibilities such as community building, fund raising, cheerleading and “the big-vision strategy stuff that needs to happen.”
“There are universities that are exploring other types of individuals for leadership,” Humphries said. “You have to have a wise individual leading the university as a whole and you make sure that you pick the right provost to lead that part of the business.”
Having a doctorate is “the traditional course” but “there’s another way to obtain that expertise and experience, and I think Jim has obtained that already at the University of Akron,” Potter said, “It’s almost like being an apprentice president.”
Tressel is executive vice president for student success at Akron and has been mentioned as a top contender to replace Luis M. Proenza, who is retiring as president June 30.
Draft Tressel movements are forming elsewhere as well. The Trumbull County Board of Commissioners approved a resolution in support of a Tressel presidency and campaigns are forming on social media sites such as Facebook.
One community activist, however, is urging caution.
Phil Kidd posted on Facebook that time should be taken before any decision is made. “Perhaps Tressel is the man for the job at this moment in time but perhaps we also feel that way because we are still (rightfully) [angry] about feeling betrayed,” he wrote. “Regardless, it's important that a proper process is not ignored and full input is gathered from faculty and the community regarding a new hire [and] not just the most prominent (although well intentioned) among us.”
Kidd agreed that an interim president should be put in place and Dunn sent packing as soon as possible. “Every day he spends on that campus and in this community is toxic. We need to move on,” he said.
Reported by George Nelson and Dennis LaRue.
Copyright 2014 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.
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