Decisiveness Is Key in Tressel’s Return to YSU
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- Jim Tressel makes Energizer Bunny look like a sluggard. Even before he was chosen president-designate of Youngstown State University, Tressel displayed a boundless energy and seemingly little need for sleep.
Since them, he has exhibited even more enthusiasm for YSU and is oblivious to weekends being a time when others recharge their batteries.
“He calls me at 6:30 in the morning because he knows I’m up,” says Paul McFadden, executive director of the Youngstown State University Foundation. “And he sends me emails at 10 at night because he knows I’m asleep.”
McFadden spent much of the first weekend of this month with Tressel as they went out to meet friends and alumni of the university.
The president-designate and his wife, Ellen, have moved into the president’s residence, Pollock House, where he rises early and stays up late. He has filled his schedule with meetings with trustees, administrators, deans of the colleges at YSU, faculty, student organizations, individual students and alumni and friends of the university. And he has made himself available to reporters.
McFadden, whom Tressel hired in 1992 as director of athletics development, has observed that when people meet Tressel for the first time, “It’s almost as if they’re starstruck.”
“He will engage the students,” Betty Jo Licata says. “He’s an easy guy to like. The students will be drawn to him.” Licata is dean of the Williamson College of Business Administration.
In the many meetings he’s had, the former head football coach of the YSU Penguins and Ohio State University Buckeyes listens closely, attentively and respectfully, nearly everyone interviewed says, asks relevant questions but keeps his own counsel.
“He has listened,” Licata says. “I’m feeling good about our discussions.” She and her fellow deans spent an hour and a half with Tressel.
“He’s a consensus builder,” says McFadden. “Everything he does is built on a team model. He gets everyone to buy in. He listens. He values your opinion.”
“He understands the need for shared governance,” says Chester Cooper, a professor of biology and president of the faculty senate. Cooper also chairs the search committee for a new provost.
“We’ve had positive communications,” Cooper says of his conversations and emails with the president-designate. “I’m impressed at how he wants to include the faculty. He takes the opinion of the faculty very highly. He’s aware of what he doesn’t know.”
“We’ll benefit from his experiences the last two years at the University of Akron,” Licata says, referring to his tenure as executive vice president for student success there and teaching classes on leadership.
While Tressel’s name is known to most students on campus, most are too young to remember him leading the Penguins to four national championships in the 1990s – the decade most undergraduates were born – and the Buckeyes to a national championship his first season in Columbus.
“His name seems to be everywhere on campus,” says senior Paige E. Taylor, a member of Alpha Omicron Pi Sorority and president of the Pan-Hellenic Council. She mentions the Watts center, Watts being the acronym for Watson and Tressel Training Site. While she is yet to meet Tressel, “I’ve heard only positive things about him.”
Taylor eats often at Cassese’s MVR restaurant in Smoky Hollow where “Tressel Tortellini is my favorite dish.”
“I’m excited about it,” says Tommy Marshall, a senior majoring in psychology and president of the campus Adventure Club. “The community’s excited about him.” Marshall, too, is yet to meet Tressel, “but we know he’s been a big part of YSU. I was a kid [when Tressel was head football coach] but everyone [his parents and their generation] remembers.”
The enthusiasm, even near adulation, for Tressel is real and nearly universal in the Mahoning Valley. Even the holdouts, who declined to go on the record, don’t deny his popularity.
Tressel himself has tried to lower expectations about what many expect he’ll accomplish. “I’ve been doing a lot of listening,” he said during an interview after a fund- raising breakfast for Boy Scouts at Camp Stambaugh. “I have some opinions as to where we need to be better, but I don’t pretend to know all the little things that it’s going to take to get things done.”
Even at that point, he had been completing his responsibilities at Akron and working full-time at YSU, meeting with “faculty, staff, alumni, [high school] guidance counselors, high school students.”
He officially takes office June 20.
Citing one of his mentors, a former English professor, Tressel said, “He told me one of the things you’re going to have to confront is that [on your second day as president] they’ll find out you can’t walk on water. … I’ve known a long time that I couldn’t walk on water.”
He’s well aware that YSU faces several dilemmas where the solutions will be the least bad alternative. “There’s no doubt this is a tough time,” he says. “But what’s more exciting than facing tough times and seeing if you can be helpful to an institution in a region you care deeply about?”
He’s not tipping his hand to reporters but one area where he’s listening to the faculty is who the next provost, or chief academic officer, will be. Cooper says the deadline for applications has been extended to Aug. 4 as “we wait for the fallout of budget decisions.” Nearly 80 had applied when he was interviewed June 6. Cooper expects that Tressel, whom he described as “broad-minded,” will “leave the choice up to the faculty” and review that choice before presenting the nomination to the trustees.
Running a university is different from running a team of athletes, a manufacturing company or government office.
“Education is much more interactive,” Licata observes. “We tell students, ‘This isn’t an information process where we open your heads and pour information in and then close them.’ ”
Unlike other venues where participants focus on one goal, “Every student will have a different goal,” the Williamson dean says. “The average student takes 50 courses before graduating and has 50 experiences that are different from every other student. Every student has different goals.”
One size does not fit all or even most. Students enter from a diverse array of backgrounds, unlike the basic raw materials a manufacturer uses to turn out his products. Moreover, “You can’t judge success by GPA or the job a student takes after graduation,” Licata says.
As Tressel has noted, attending college has changed considerably since he was aware of his environment at age 5 on the campus of Baldwin Wallace College. He’s been in or close to “higher education almost 55 years,” and a student, assistant coach or coach “38, 39 years” at Baldwin Wallace, the University of Akron, Youngstown State and Ohio State.
“It’s important to understand what a university is,” Licata says
He has been more than a coach to his players, a recurring theme in interviews over the years about Tressel. He has kept abreast of what’s going on in academia beyond the football fields and emphasized the student part of student-athlete in ensuring his players attend their classes and study hard. “He has always been committed to students as students,” Licata says. “He took the model of student-athlete seriously.” (Her emphasis.)
As the dean notes, “Going to college today is more demanding than it was 20 or 30 years ago. … [Moreover] Employers expect more now of college graduates when they begin their jobs.”
Licata agrees with his assessment of the importance of not putting off the tough decisions. “A some point you have to make a decision, even if it’s not the best one, and a good leader will admit to it when [it’s found that] it isn’t.”
Tressel is aware, “Sometimes in education we’re a little indecisive and we kind of kick it to the next meeting, or we get a task force to study it a little longer, or ‘Hey, let’s get a little more data,’ and all of a sudden you haven’t made a decision.”
He intends for decisiveness to be characteristic of his administration, to act when he has to decide but only after having done his homework. “I feel very equipped having spent so much time in higher education, Tressel says. “We will have to be decisive. I’ve never seen people disappointed at decisiveness.”
Editor's Note: This story appears in the MidJune edition of The Business Journal, in subscribers' mailboxes today. The publication also includes welcome-home messages to Tressel from local businesses and nonprofit organizations.
Copyright 2014 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.
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