Luis Proenza believes in the brand. What else explains the University of Akron’s persistent presence in the parade of ads on Super Bowl Sunday? Consider the recent upgrade in the university marketing and communications office, or the thread from the Akron Advantage to the Akron Model to the Akron Experience.
The UA president also believes in taking risks, something others in the region would do well to emulate.
Both elements came together last week in the hiring of Jim Tressel as vice president for strategic engagement.
Practically everyone recognizes the gamble. Tressel brings much baggage, his stellar coaching career featuring its darker episodes, most notably the events that triggered his exit from Ohio State last year. He fell short in a basic way. He chose silence when he had an obligation to share what he knew with university officials.
Charges of hypocrisy have been easy to hurl at Tressel. Now Proenza might be jabbed for falling into a familiar cultural pattern, chasing the buzz, embracing the celebrity no matter the troubles or embarrassments of the past. Heck, Newt Gingrich is winning votes for president in the party of family values.
Yet Proenza believes in something else — talent. He long has argued that the state can make few better investments in higher education than to support the hiring of top-notch researchers, who attract additional resources in the form of money and smart people, the combination helping to power a regional economy.
Talent serves as a centerpiece of the recently unveiled strategic plan for the university, “Vision 2020.”
The plan is ambitious and practical. Among other things, it calls for boosting research dollars from the current $50 million a year to $200 million by the end of the decade. It aims to add 200 faculty members and increase enrollment to 40,000 students. It seeks to expand the Akron Model, the university leveraging its expertise to help companies, both established and emerging, address challenges and fuel economic development.
The plan identifies a set of “strategic pathways.” None is more important than “The Akron Experience: Academic & Inclusive Excellence.” Put simply, it involves mobilizing university resources so that students of all shapes and sizes get what they need to advance. It embraces what the university is, a place where many arrive, excel and graduate in four years and yet many others take a much different course, attending part-time, often with interruptions.
The imperative in this knowledge economy is doing what is necessary (including greater state support) to see that as many students as possible succeed, getting a degree, acquiring the skills for a changing workplace.
This is the opening for Tressel, ready to explore his own different path in education. Proenza is betting on his talent as an executive, a successful head football coach knowing all about sound organization, discipline and decision-making.
Tressel clearly is more complicated than the simple red sweater vest. He has erred. Yet hard to deny the close and enduring relationships with his players, the lessons they cite, the larger perspective they say he has brought to their lives.
No doubt, Tressel has the makings of a formidable fund-raiser and ambassador for the university. It may be that he is waiting for the next coaching job, or had nowhere else to go. Then, there is the Akron Experience that Proenza is attempting to build, reflecting the educational strengths many admire in Tressel. Even modest gains in this realm would far outpace the return on a 12-0 season.
In the fall, Proenza circulated an article among his peers across the state addressing the flawed measures of success in higher education. The author, Ryan Craig of University Ventures Fund, skewered the reliance on what is easy to count, “research, rankings and real estate” (or how the campus looks).
Craig compared the process to the thinking of those old scouts in Moneyball, the book by Michael Lewis and now a movie. The scouts didn’t measure players by data. They traded in hunches, the speed of a fastball, the look of a swing. So, too, in higher education, argued Craig, starting with the incomplete information about part-time and transfer students.
Proenza follows the logic, cudgeling the federal requirements for six-year graduation rates, stressing that they favor schools admitting mostly first-time, full-time students. He asks: Why punish those universities with students who graduate in eight years attending half-time?
All of this is part of an argument about linking public funding to student success. A good idea? Yes. What Proenza seeks through Vision 2020 is showing the value of those who take unconventional paths to graduation, higher education adapting to the circumstances faced by many aspiring students, the rest of us benefiting from the enhanced level of talent.
This is the Akron Experience, or what might be described, in a flattering way, as no student left behind.
It may all fall flat. Yet the attempt is most worthy. Why not then take a chance on the available and apparently eager Jim Tressel? He will heighten the profile. He can be persuasive. He sure knows success.
Douglas is the Beacon Journal editorial page editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3514, or emailed at email@example.com.