YSU Interim President’s Early Exit Wasn’t Her Idea

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Helen Lafferty calls serving as Youngstown State University interim president one of the most “phenomenal experiences” of her life. 

Leaving early wasn’t her idea.

“It was just decided upon that I would be leaving in December because they wanted the new president to spend some time here,” she said.

Lafferty was notified of the decision by Michael Peterson, chairman of the YSU Board of Trustees.

Last month, university trustees, by an 8-1 vote, approved a contract with U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson to be the 10th YSU president. His contract says he is to begin the job by mid-March, and he previously said he’d resign from Congress in early 2024.

“They just asked me to leave by Dec. 31,” Lafferty said.

She became interim president Feb. 1 after the retirement of President Jim Tressel. Her appointment letter, dated Nov. 10, 2022, said her term would “continue until a permanent successor is selected and installed, or until terminated by one or both parties.” 

A university spokeswoman said a leadership transition plan is being developed but hasn’t been finalized.

Lafferty announced at the trustees’ Dec. 6 meeting and in an email to the campus that same day that she would leave Dec. 31.

She earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at YSU and said has loved her time as interim president at her alma mater. She earned her doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh.

“This has been one of the most phenomenal experiences of my life,” she said. “I cannot begin to tell you how much I’ve loved being here. These people are totally incredible – the faculty, the staff, the students, the alums – I mean incredible people. I’m the one that’s benefitted, not them. It’s been my gift, not me giving them a gift.”

Lafferty wasn’t interested in filling the presidential position on a permanent basis.

Connection with Students

The highlight of her time at YSU has been the students.

“They have really been, for me, they’re the center and they have just been incredible to work with,” Lafferty said.

She attends all of the Student Government Association meetings and has a group of 23 presidential mentors with whom she meets. She listens to them. 

“Who knows better what’s going on here than they,” she said.

She also meets with resident hall leaders.

“It’s just been so wonderful staying connected to their lives …,” Lafferty said. “When you’re in administration, you can get really removed from the essential reason you’re here.”

That’s why she appreciates her connections to those student groups.

She referred to a quote from author Stephen Covey: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

“That’s them,” she said of YSU students. “They’re the main thing.”

As president, she’s been able to respond to student concerns. That’s one of the benefits of leadership: direct access.

“I’ve always believed that respect is something you earn. It’s not something that someone gives you,’ Lafferty said. “You’ve got to earn that, and that was my way of certainly earning respect from the students” and from those she sought to help address student concerns.

Her Goal as Interim President

She said her goal when she became interim president was simple. She wanted to be what the people at YSU needed her to be during her tenure.

“I really think I did an OK job at that,” Lafferty said. “I told people from the beginning, both the board and my cabinet, I don’t intend to make any long-term decisions.”

She didn’t want to make any lasting decisions that the next president would have to live with.

“I really tried to keep my focus clear, always, and I really believe people understood that,” Lafferty said.

Still, it wasn’t a low-key 11 months. She awakes at 4:45 a.m. each day and arrives at her office early, stays late and attends events across campus and the community.

“I have not had a whole lot of time to just sit back and kick up my feet,” Lafferty said.

Contracts with both the faculty and Association of Classified Employees unions were approved during her time at YSU, too.

“I said to someone, ‘I didn’t spend one minute in negotiations for either of them,’ Lafferty said. “And one of the people responded and said, ‘No, this is because of you.’”

The person, who Lafferty said was on the negotiating team, said it was the tone that she set. “‘You just set a tone where we all mattered,’” she said of what that individual told her.

Setting that tone was nothing complex, Lafferty said. It involved asking people about their lives and things that matter to them.

“I think frequently, when you get into leadership positions, sometimes leaders can think it’s all about them,” she said. “This job wasn’t about me. It was about what service I could do for the people here. I really embrace that type of leadership.”

She remembered people’s names and important events in their and their families’ lives.

“It was nothing complex, nothing that’s going to make the research literature,” Lafferty said.

She tells her students at Villanova where she’s a faculty member and administrator that everything is relational – the better your relations are, the better your life will be.

She teaches leadership and administration in higher education, the purpose of the university and philosophy of higher education at the Pennsylvania university.

A Recommendation

Lafferty said she doesn’t give advice, but she hopes that the incoming president sees the “greatness of this university and continues to advance it.”

She does give recommendations for consideration though, and she has one for people on campus.

“My recommendation is that we just keep our eyes on the goal – why are we here?” she said. “We are a university. We must never lose sight of that fact.”

No one comes to a university because of the president, Lafferty said.

“They come here for the faculty who can teach them data structure and algorithms,” she said. “They don’t come here for me. They come here for the faculty member who’s teaching them the courses they need to get their degree.”

She said the university needs to emphasize the importance of graduating, and she uses herself as an example.

“Without my degree from Youngstown State University, everything that I have today, I would not have if it were not for this place,” Lafferty said. “This is where it all started.”

YSU trustees’ selection of Johnson and the way the board conducted the presidential search has brought backlash from people on campus and in the community. Some alumni have said they would no longer support YSU financially, and two honorary degree recipients have said they’ll return them.

“It has been unpleasant,” Lafferty said. “I cannot deny that.”

But she’s accepted it.

“I just think people made a decision and decided to go with it,” Lafferty said. “That’s what happened.”

Lafferty has developed relationships with people at the university that she plans to continue.

“I’m so very grateful for all the goodness that people have shown me while I was here and their care and concern for me,” she said. “When I really step back and think about it, it’s overwhelming. … I am just so grateful for that. Along with the honor of representing Youngstown State University, it’s been really a humbling experience for me, too, to know that they’ve given me so much latitude to serve them. I’m so honored.”

Pictured at top: Helen Lafferty, YSU interim president, is seen in this image captured from video.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.