President Luis Proenza got a special one: a digital picture frame with photos to mark his first decade on the job. It was an appropriate memento, considering that he brought many of those photos into focus.
''I think he's doing a tremendous job,'' said Marion Ruebel, who preceded Proenza as president of the tax-supported institution. ''It fits with his perspective. He's the right man for the job.''
Proenza has overseen a dramatic remake of the UA campus that has fueled growth in many critical areas, earning him the respect of virtually all.
''He has a sense of direction, of where we should be and how we should be,'' said Harvey Sterns, president of the Faculty Senate and director of the Institute for Lifespan Development and Gerontology. Proenza's vision ''went way beyond what we thought was possible.''
While at age 64 Proenza is approaching a time when many would be thinking of retirement, he is pushing ahead on the latest, and perhaps most ambitious, addition to the campus landscape: the long-awaited stadium to replace the crumbling Rubber Bowl. And he is beginning to envision a university for the next 10 years, one that is an engine for growth on campus, in the neighborhood and in the region.
Diamond in rough
Proenza was a finalist for top jobs at five other institutions before he left Purdue University to join UA in 1999. What he found was a diamond in the rough — a ''quite remarkable institution that needed to be dusted off and polished off,'' he has said diplomatically.
Ted Curtis, UA vice president for capital planning and facilities management, is blunter.
''It was scary,'' he said. ''We had buildings in which professors were teaching and students were going. But I don't think they were enjoying themselves because they were getting in their cars and leaving right after class.''
Proenza quickly came to the same conclusion. Enrollment had plummeted from a peak of 30,000 in 1990 to 23,200 by the time he arrived. No buildings had been added to the campus in almost nine years. The institution was in decline.
He defined student enrollment as the ''overarching challenge . . . and the single most important priority for the next several years,'' according to the trustees' written evaluation of Proenza's performance in April 2001.
While Ruebel, Proenza's predecessor, laid the framework for the campus' transformation, the bulk of the work fell to Proenza. The ideas had only partly jelled and funding was still a dream when he moved his stand-up desk and sailing photos into the executive suite in Buchtel Hall.
Within months, Proenza, Curtis and trustees went to New York City to persuade bond underwriters to support UA's master rebuilding plan.
That launched a $200 million plan that later rose to $300 million as projects were added for a total of 10 new buildings and 17 major additions, acquisitions and renovations.
Green space was added, city streets were closed and dorm rooms were built to amplify the campuslike feel. The improvements hit a high note with students and their parents.
Over the past four years, enrollment grew 15 percent to 26,000 last fall, and admissions officials expect it to climb again this fall.
Kristen Bowman, a Cuyahoga Falls resident who just finished her term as president of the Associated Student Government, said students like what they see.
''There's people all over campus and they're excited to be here,'' said the graduating senior, who is the daughter of two UA alumni who were thrilled when she chose to follow in their academic footsteps. ''The campus has more of a small-town feel.''
Proenza and other officials also hammered out the 10-year blueprint that runs through 2010 to guide the academic direction of the university.
Charting the Course defined UA as the major research university in northern Ohio, particularly in polymers and engineering.
It was an audacious claim, considering that the five other public universities in northern Ohio have engineering programs of their own and one has a polymer science program.
But UA was then, and is now, the only university in Ohio, public or private, to have a science and engineering program ranked in the top five nationally.
And UA also fared well in the Measuring University Performance report by the Lombardi Program at the University of Florida in 2000.
It placed UA among the top 100 research institutions nationwide on five of 10 rankings (including the number of National Academy members, doctorates awarded and postdoctoral appointees). The only public universities in Ohio to do better were Ohio State and Cincinnati.
When he was interviewed for the top job at the University of Florida in 2003, Proenza said that defining UA as the research institution in northern Ohio was ''perhaps the defining element'' of his presidency.
''There is a lot more documentable excellence here than anyone had given us credit for,'' he said recently at a desktop heaping with papers and a growing collection of kangaroo memorabilia. ''If you enumerate those indicators of objective excellence, UA would be the third- or fourth-ranked institution in Ohio.''
Proenza has done more than focus on the campus, though, launching the University Park Alliance in 2001 to improve the well-worn neighborhoods around UA.
The goal to clean up the neighborhood and add housing and businesses was not selfless, but a calculated move to protect the university's interests while doing what a university should do, in his view: Improve the community at large.
Most recently, UA helped the process by buying dozens of turn-of-the-century student rentals and knocking them down for its $61.6 million stadium that will open in September.
In all, the university, Summa Health System, churches, Akron Public Schools and others invested or pledged to invest close to $1 billion in University Park over the last nine years, alliance Executive Director Ken Stapleton said.
Proenza ''really was the key person in those early discussions,'' Stapleton said. ''He was the right spokesperson to help other people understand the importance of what we were doing.''
Face of UA
Along the way, Proenza has made himself the face of the university. It's Proenza who stars in television commercials that use special effects to urge students to ''catch the excitement'' of the UA campus. It's Proenza who speaks at every commencement, when many other schools seek off-campus luminaries for the starring roles.
It's Proenza who delivers an animated description of the UA kangaroo mascot, Zippy, with passion and well-rehearsed pumps of his arm to unfailing applause:
''In the metaphors of financial markets, you need to know that this kangaroo is bullish on Akron and on Ohio! It packs quite a punch, puts quite a zip into the economy and, yes, it is always one giant leap ahead of the competition!'' he said at the unveiling of the plans for InfoCision Stadium.
But there have been sour notes, too. Appointed by a Republican-led board of trustees, Proenza has had skirmishes with Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic, a Democrat.
Two years ago, for example, Plusquellic was floored to learn about UA's plans to buy Quaker Square, a shopping and entertainment complex that housed one of the city's only two downtown hotels.
''I thought that what they would do is run it as a school for their hotel management students,'' Plusquellic said. ''When they said they were going to close it down, I was furious. I almost fell off my chair.''
Plusquellic was so upset he didn't attend the university's announcement — complete with student musicians, balloons, Zippy and cheering community officials — about the new stadium. Instead he went to a photo shoot in Beachwood for the city's Hamburger Festival.
Proenza quickly called Plusquellic to smooth the troubled waters. The university eventually agreed to give the city 3.4 acres of the Quaker Square property for parking or a new hotel.
That led to regular meetings for Plusquellic, Proenza, Summit County Executive Russ Pry and Dan Colantone, executive director of the Greater Akron Chamber, to keep surprises to a minimum. Plusquellic said he and Proenza have resolved the bulk of their disagreements.
Missteps over years
Proenza was less successful in convincing faculty they didn't need a union.
In 2003, he pleaded with them by e-mail to resist the call of the union. While he sweetened the pot by persuading trustees to deploy $1 million from athletics to bolster faculty salaries, faculty still voted to be represented by the American Association of University Professors in contract negotiations.
In 2004, he dismissed three high-level employees, one a co-worker he had recruited from his time at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, after a scathing report from the state inspector general's office detailed financial mismanagement.
The university also was humiliated when the family of a former law student came forward with news that a drug informant had been living with students.
Equally bad news was that the university was placing hardened adults with prison records in dorm rooms with fresh-faced 18-year-olds away from home for the first time.
And in December, UA Trustee Jack Morrison was indicted on seven misdemeanor charges of ethics violations regarding the sale of his son's home to the university to make way for the stadium. A trial is pending.
The stumbles have not kept Proenza from pushing ahead.
The remake of the campus is continuing. Four new buildings are in the works: the stadium, a residence hall, a new parking deck and a research facility for polymer science. The new projects will bring campus investment to $500 million over the past nine years.
The university also became a partner last year with Akron's three hospital systems and the Northeastern Ohio Universities Colleges of Medicine and Pharmacy to create the BioInnovation Institute.
The initiative blends UA's research in polymer science with the medical college's musculoskeletal expertise and the orthopedic strengths of the three hospitals in the pursuit of orthopedic research.
Proenza's work ''on that is going to be remembered for generations to come,'' said the chamber's Colantone. ''Frankly, that's going to be the start of our future.''
In March, Proenza kicked off discussion of the next 10-year plan.
''Be bold, be ambitious, think differently'' he advised staffers in the early days of the nine-month process. He shuttled around campus on a golf cart to get students' input.
He already has set down his ideas — that UA will be intensely geared to the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, math and medicine, or STEMM in the alphabet soup that is academia.
Longer-range plans call for new homes for the College of Education and School of Law.
He also has articulated what he views as the future of UA: to be in the top 10 percent of doctoral graduates in the chemical sciences nationwide, for example; now it is in the top 20 percent.
He wants the university to achieve $200 million in annual sponsored research activities; in 2007-08, the number was $34.2 million.
He expects on-campus enrollment by 2020 to be 30,000 and enrollment via distance learning and other technologies to perhaps reach 100,000.
It might seem a little too ambitious, but who would have thought the university would have made the progress that it has, he asked rhetorically.
His final goal is closer to home and perhaps surprisingly modest.
When he leaves the presidency, he said, he hopes others will say, ''He made a difference'' or ''He took the university to new levels of excellence. Something very nice and well-meant.''
Carol Biliczky can be reached at 330-996-3729 or firstname.lastname@example.org.