Presidents check out Fingerhut’s master plan

Jackie Valley

Lefton: saving public colleges in Ohio to take at least 20 years

The vision is set. Now, it’s time to work out the details.

That’s the consensus among the presidents of three Northeast Ohio universities — Kent State, Youngstown State and the University of Akron — concerning the release of Chancellor Eric Fingerhut’s 10-year strategic plan for higher education last week.

“I think the most important aspect is we have a vision that’s been created for the future of Ohio and it’s been with the chancellor and the governor,” Youngstown State President David Sweet said. “That’s long overdue.”

“I think that obviously in a 140-page document there are a lot of things to be worked out, but it’s a major step forward.”

The plan for the University System of Ohio calls for increasing the number of Ohioans with higher education degrees as a means to help initiate an economic revival in the state.

In accordance with that goal, dozens of key strategies and 20 accountability measures within the plan strive to graduate more people, keep graduates in Ohio and attract more talent to the state.

President Lester Lefton said Kent State’s priority of improving graduation and retention rates is “a good complement, consistent with Chancellor Fingerhut’s plan.”

Although Kent State leads the way in producing graduates in Northeast Ohio, Lefton said “we still have a way to go.”

In addition, Lefton said Kent State endorses the chancellor’s mission to bring state support for Ohio institutions up to the national average. Ohio ranked 39th in 2006 state funding per full-time equivalent student — $420 million short of the national average.

“Many of the other goals in the chancellor’s plan have to be fleshed out because, as we all know, the devil is in the detail,” he said.

Lefton said higher education, however, is just one part of the solution to heal Ohio’s economy.

“Given the anemic state support that higher education receives from the state of Ohio, it’s not surprising that we have so few college graduates,” he said. “I’m delighted the governor and chancellor are reasserting the primacy of the economy.”

Lefton said it has taken Ohio 20 years of meager state support to place public higher education in its current circumstances, and it will take “at least 20 years to crawl out of it.”

In the meantime, Fingerhut asked each of Ohio’s 13 public institutions to identify its strongest programs — or “centers of excellence” — by the end of the year as part of the plan’s mission to reduce competition among the universities while building nationally recognized programs.

Luis Proenza, president of the University of Akron, said Akron already sent Fingerhut a plan identifying the university’s key strengths with a heavy focus being on polymer science.

“As we like to say, we create the new materials for the new economy,” he said.

Sweet said Youngstown State has an academic plan that has “laid the groundwork for identifying the centers of excellence that we will be advocating,” including STEM and health and human services programs.

STEM refers to programs related to science, technology, engineering, mathematics and the medical fields. Sweet said Youngstown State is the first university in Ohio to create a STEM college.

Lefton said Kent State will wait for more guidance from the chancellor before officially identifying its centers of excellence.

“While the term centers of excellence has yet to be operationally defined, it’s clear Kent State has a significant number of signature programs, which include but are not limited to liquid crystal physics, journalism and mass communication, nursing, education architecture, psychology and biomedical sciences,” he said.

The master plan also calls for collaboration among Kent State, Youngstown State and Jefferson Community College to make a community college education available in the Mahoning Valley.

Sweet said a community college education in the region is “long overdue” and necessary to contribute 8,000 students — the Mahoning Valley’s share — to Gov. Ted Strickland’s goal of enrolling 230,000 more students in public higher education by 2017.

“The only way we could achieve that is expanding the community college here in the Mahoning Valley,” he said, adding it is the only region in Ohio that does not already have a community college.

The master plan also requires Fingerhut to meet annually with the presidents of Northeast Ohio’s four public universities — Kent State, Youngstown State, Cleveland State and the University of Akron — to review progress toward fostering greater collaboration and mission distinctiveness among the institutions.

“I think that’s a natural and wise way for us to pick up on what’s already going on,” Proenza said.

Sweet said the Inter-University Council, an association of Ohio’s public universities, will meet with the governor and the chancellor this week to discuss the master plan in more detail.

Even so, Lefton said because it is a 10-year plan for higher education, the impact will not be immediate.

“Magic is not going to happen next month or next year,” he said.

Contact administration reporter Jackie Valley at [email protected].