‘A walking around president’

Kristine Gill

Former President Michael Schwartz hated staying in the office.

Ninth president stayed in touch with campus life

You learn a lot listening to people around campus: what students are interested in, what they’re concerned about, which movies are coming out Friday. As Michael Schwartz found out, a primary concern was always food.

“That’s no surprise,” said the university’s ninth president emeritus. “It’s one of the inevitabilities of campus life; one of those things nobody can do well. You can’t decide when to cancel classes because of snow, you can’t do food well — there are a couple of others on that list.”

Schwartz served as president of Kent State from 1982 through 1991. He called himself “a walking around president” because he often took time to stroll the campus on his own, talking to students and faculty.

“I talked to students, or they would stop me and talk to me. I’d stop in on offices and find out what was going on in the secretary’s world,” he said. “I learned a lot walking around.”

Even as a top administrator, he tried to avoid staying holed up in his office.

“If you become isolated in the office, you can lose touch with the campus very quickly,” he said. But students still knew his face.

“They recognized me all right,” he said with a laugh.

Schwartz would have walked among students who listened to AC/DC, Madonna, Michael Jackson and Journey, among others. They would have watched such movies as Back to the Future, the Star Wars trilogy and Ghostbusters when they came out in theaters. Movies and music we’re familiar with today defined culture then.

As William Hildebrand writes, “When the decade began, women wore their hair long, free and somewhat styled, and their skirts were well above their knees and their boots high and tight. Men’s hair was full on top but trimmed close to the ears, and a few ‘dudes’ sported mustaches, excuse-me sideburns, and beards…Both women and men’s party clothes reflected the hallucinatory colors and designs of the psychedelic culture of the 1960s.”

Author of “A Most Noble Enterprise: The Story of Kent State University, 1910-2010,” Hildebrand called Schwartz an academic president.

“I’ll phrase that another way,” Hildebrand said. “The students thought of him as a student president and the faculty thought of him as the faculty president.”

Able to connect with either demographic, Hildebrand said Schwartz had good public presence as well.

“He was very intelligent, very affable and a first-rate off-the-cuff speaker,” he said.

Along with the change in students’ appearance came a facelift for front campus. The buildings, which had stood for decades from the university’s start, were beginning to show signs of wear. They were renovated over the course of the 80s and 90s.

“Some buildings they took down almost to the floor,” Hildebrand said. “Most of the buildings were gutted all the way through, and new interiors were put in. That was particularly true of Moulton, Lowry and Franklin.”

When Schwartz walked through campus on a Friday and passed through the Taylor Hall parking lot, he often noticed out-of-state license plates on many of the cars. It was part of the lasting legacy of May 4.

“People would get off the turnpike and go down to Kent and just walk the site,” Schwartz said. “I think over the years, there’s been more of that, not less.”

And while he didn’t serve as president until more than 10 years after the shootings, he would have his direct share of the aftermath.

Brage Golding had encountered the brunt of the decision making as president when the May 4 Task Force asked him to build a memorial when he first assumed the presidency. He turned down an idea from artist George Segal that would have erected a bronze statue depicting Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac in the Bible. Golding turned it down because he didn’t think the violent image should serve as a memorial.

When fundraising fell short, the design was scaled back to the current size seen on campus. Alan Canfora of the May 4 Task Force said it is an ongoing goal of the group to have the rest of the memorial built. He said only 7 percent of the original design was included as part of the scaled-back version.

“It begs completion,” Canfora said.

The partial memorial was constructed in front of a crowd of 4,000 on the 20th anniversary of the shootings.

“The memorial was dedicated on May 4, 1990, a cold, rainy, uncomfortable day of somber skies, umbrellas, raincoats and slippery walkways,” Hildebrand writes. “Still bleak though it was, it had a rightness of symmetry that made it profoundly appropriate for a memorial dedicated to the tragedy enacted two decades earlier on a day so very different, a warm, clear, comfortable day under the bright gaze of noon.”

“When Governor (Richard)Celeste came, we didn’t really expect him,” Schwartz said. “And he apologized on behalf of the people of the state of Ohio to the student’s families and the students. That had never been done before. It was a great moment in Kent State’s history.”

Schwartz remembers another day in 1991 as a proud one for the university. It was the year The National Science Foundation named the Liquid Crystals Institute at Kent as a national science and technology center.

“There were only 12 of those in the country at that time,” Schwartz said. “And that one was the only one in Ohio, and the partners in it were Case Western and the University of Akron, but the center was located at Kent State.”

“I was very proud of that,” he continued. “I thought that was a great, great step forward in terms of recognition and quality of programs.”

Hildebrand said the decade was one of expansion for the university as enrollment reached nearly 30,000 for all eight campuses in the fall of 1988.

“There was a remarkable expansion of faculty and student achievement,” Hildebrand said. “There was so much emphasis on the academic. There were new programs added and old ones expanded. There were new faculty hires. The campus was abuzz and astir with that sort of intellectual activity.”

While he doesn’t miss his nine years as president or the 16 he spent before and after as a vice president and professor on the campus, Schwartz still has fond memories. He recalls students sledding after a heavy snow on front campus.

“The risking of life and limb going around the trees was always interesting to watch,” he said. And he’s skeptical about the true form of the famed rock on front campus.

“I’m convinced the rock is really only the size of a dime,” he said. “It started out not as a rock, but a pebble and the rest is paint.”

After his time as president, Schwartz taught at Kent State for 10 more years. He is currently on leave as a professor in educational leadership at Cleveland State University. He will begin teaching again there in the fall.

“I have a very, very warm spot in my heart for (Kent State),” he said.

Contact enterprise reporter

Kristine Gill at [email protected].