My hometown college named a beloved former football coach its new president and virtually the entire community is celebrating. I got a master's in literature at Youngstown State during the '90s and have much love for how the University anchored Youngstown during its decades-long slide. YSU employed lots of local residents, provided cultural opportunities, maintained an open-admissions policy, and educated loads of first-generation college students and persons of color. Coach Jim Tressel, before he went on to massive success--and eventually was forced to step down for ethics and rules violations--at Ohio State--coached football at YSU and won championships, giving people in a sometimes sad city something to be proud of.
Now barred from coaching until 2017 because of those violations, Tressel's been named YSU President. People love him and because of that he can likely raise lots and lots of money. He won near-universal--hyperbolic--support from local politicians, op-ed writers, unions, and, community leaders. But here's the thing: he's not an academic. He doesn't have any experience with academic fields of study. He doesn't know how knowledge is constructed. He's got, I imagine, a Reader's Digest version of academic culture, and I'm not sure that's enough when making tough decisions about, for example, balancing STEM and professional school needs with liberal and humanistic needs (as YSU is currently trying to do). Anybody who made this point was dismissed by the Youngstown press as being elitist and their arguments were reduced ("some stuffy types critique Tressel for not having a PhD..."). I hope I'm wrong and that this lack of perspective doesn't stop Tressel from being a great president, because YSU has clearly declined in the twenty years since I was a student: declining enrollments, massive decrease in support from the state, increased reliance on adjunct labor, and they need great leadership.
But there's something more than Tressel's inexperience and lack of academic qualifications. Youngstown has a reputation for corruption. We've (I say "we" as someone born and raised in Youngstown but, admittedly, as someone who hasn't lived there in decades) been a punchline since I was a little boy there. The crooked politicians, the mobsters running everything from city hall to vending machines, Jim Traficant. Organized, institutional wrongdoing--Youngstown tends to accept these things as local quirks, as things that are funny. "Ha, that's Youngstown for you." It's hard not to see the embrace of Tressel and the absence of conversation about his rules violations at Ohio State as another example of Youngstown's *affinity* for all things crooked. The same community that elected Jim Traficant over and over again and laughed off (and took gifts from and gave communion to) people they knew were murderous mafiosos has now embraced another individual known for institutional wrongdoing. And once again the justification seems to be the same: cult of personality, good fellow, and potential to turn a buck ("great fundraiser").
I wrote this blog this morning. In the afternoon, Youngstown's mayor was indicted, along with the county auditor and city attorney. One commenter under this story wrote, "Perhaps the valley 'movers and shakers' can get him appointed as VP at YSU."