I recall the first time I saw the Wright State University campus — well, it was less of a “campus” and more like one building in a cornfield.
I had just graduated from Ohio University and was home preparing for law school. WSU was a branch of Ohio State and Miami in those days. They were “the Raiders” then, but the mascot was a person in a Viking outfit. (Never could understand that connection.)
I have watched the school grow and mature over the years. What began as an awkward experiment became a viable, thriving, full-blown university — a community asset that has educated thousands of young people, and has played a significant role in the economic rebirth of the Dayton area.
Men like Brage Golding, Bob Keggeris, and Paige Mulhollan, provided early presidential leadership. Thousands of dedicated staff and teachers have worked hard through the years to facilitate a college education for our youth.
Today, Wright State is under siege. An onslaught of negative publicity has damaged a venerable institution. The leadership at the college has defaulted on their collective responsibility to the community, to students, to alumni, and to the loyal WSU employees. In short, someone was “asleep as the wheel” at the college.
As a former trustee at my alma mater for nine years, I wholeheartedly endorse Gov. John Kasich’s call to reduce the terms of trustees from nine years to six years. I would suggest four. Nine years is too long. Trustees and presidents get too cozy. Careful oversight of the institution, and the intended check-and-balance relationship between the university president and trustees wanes.
But merely reducing the terms of the trustees does not get at the problem. Trustee appointments are generally political in nature, and are gifts to well-connected people in the hope of generating donations and monetary gifts to the university. The Ohio Legislature needs to give thought to enacting statutory requisites for the job. At least one trustee should be required to have a professional budgeting background. And another slot should be reserved for an educator; after all, educating students is the business of schools like WSU.
Certainly, maintaining a balanced budget ought be the top priority for university trustees. The money they handle is hard-earned dollars from students, their parents and taxpayers. Those folks deserve accountability. One can understand an occasional mistake in estimating income or expenses; but the hole in the Wright State budget brings to the fore images of the Grand Canyon.
I am convinced that WSU will survive and emerge from this crisis. But it’s going to take a long time to heal the wounds and regain community respect and pride. The teachers, I am sure, remain committed to giving young people a first-class education. With a new president coming, there is hope. Perhaps the trustees, or at least some of them, will do the right thing and give Ohio’s governor a chance to bring change to the board.
There is no more important endeavor in society than preparing the next generation for the challenges of a fast-changing world. The greater Dayton community has an important stake in making sure WSU remains a viable institution of higher learning.
Paul R. Leonard is a former Dayton Mayor, Ohio legislator, and Lt. Governor. He served as a university trustee at Ohio University for nine years and currently teaches Political Science courses at Wright State.