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attitude, and I hope it’s
fading, that universities
are largely responsible
for thinking and not
necessarily doing,”
Strickland, who once
was a professor of
psychology at Shawnee
State University in
southern Ohio, said
with a chuckle.
encountered that
attitude, too, he said,
when he was the
ranking Democrat
on the state Senate
Finance Committee,
entertaining funding
requests. “I would sit
there and one university after another would come in and
tell us howwell they were doing,” he recalled. “All of that was
certainly plausible. And yet we were 38th in the nation in terms
of educational attainment. We weren’t seeing the startups and
tech transfer. Something was not adding up.”
The onetime director of economic development education
and entrepreneurship at private Baldwin-Wallace College near
Cleveland, Fingerhut compared this to a businessperson trying
to recruit investors by lamenting, “You’ve got to save me,”
versus another saying he’s got a great opportunity to offer and
there’s still room to get in on it. “For too long, higher education
was on the Chicken Little side of this, not the, ‘We’re going to
succeed and here’s howwe can help you’ side,” he said.
Persuading the public and its elected leaders that the
universities are here to help is effective politics, Fingerhut
said—something else that public
higher education hasn’t necessarily
been good at. “Yes, this is a campaign,
because campaigns are communication
tools,” said the chancellor, who
joked that, within five minutes, he
can turn any conversation about
higher education into a discourse
on economic development. The
message of the campaign is this: Ohio’s
public universities were built and are
maintained by the state’s taxpayers, and,
therefore, “Our obligation is to drive
the economic prosperity of Ohio. It’s a
planned and sustained strategy for building support within all
the constituencies that matter,” Fingerhut said.
Preeminent among those constituencies is the Republican-
dominated General Assembly. There, legislators including
JonHusted, a former Republican speaker of the House who
was elected to the state Senate in 2008, had so soured on the
competition among the universities that they finally resisted
increasing their funding even enough to keep pace with
Although in name part of a statewide system, Ohio’s
universities had only slightly less testy relationships with
each other than they had with the General Assembly. Ohio’s
universities, likeMichigan’s, are highly independent, in a
state that is stubbornly parochial, divided as it is into vastly
dissimilar regions (“pockets of city-states,” as Bowling Green
President Carol Cartwright calls them). The most prosperous
regions are on a diagonal from the traditional manufacturing
centers of Akron and Cleveland in the northeast to corporate
Cincinnati in the southwest and white-collar Columbus in the
center, while the northwest on the border withMichigan is
industrial, and the southeast is a part of Appalachia.
Each university has its own board of trustees and lobbyists.
Each submits its own budget. Described by at least one Ohio
newspaper as fiefdoms, the public universities (they prefer to
call themselves “state assisted,” to the annoyance of legislators)
spun off 24 regional branch campuses, squandered scarce
resources on redundant programs, and battled with each other
not only for money, but for students.
“In the past those board assignments were basically
political payoffs, and there were people who were more
interested in getting access to football tickets than in
advocating for a strong systemof education,” Strickland
said. “It really prevented the needs of the state frombeing
The business community thought so too. “That’s been
one of our biggest problems, that we have these competitive
silos, not only in our universities but in our metro areas,”
said Dorothy Baunach, special advisor to the Ohio Business
Roundtable and president emeritus of the Northeast Ohio
Technology Coalition. “Each campus is pretty insulated. It’s
hard for them to think systemically. There’s still a lot of work to
do to break down those walls.”
Elected leaders tried in vain for years to coax the
universities into shedding programs that were poorly rated or
redundant, in at least one case cutting off state funding in 1995
to get the University of Cincinnati, the University of Toledo,
Bowling Green State University and Kent State University to
drop their low-ranked doctoral programs in history. Instead,
the universities simply found independent sources of money to
continue them. In 2003, Strickland’s predecessor, Republican
Bob Taft, appointed a commission on higher education
and the economy, but the universities largely ignored its
When Strickland became governor in 2007, one of his first
acts was to call the university and college presidents together.
Expecting a brief meet-and-greet, they were surprised to be
kept in a conference roomby the governor for six hours.
“I said to them, ‘I amnot your enemy. I am your friend,’”
Strickland recalled. “And I expressed some dismay that in the
past higher education had become the target every time there
was a budget problem. I said, ‘We’re going to bring an end to
that. But in order for us to be successful together, I’m going to
have to ask for your cooperation.’”
He told the presidents that if the state was going to support
them, it had a right to expect that they would operate more
efficiently. He urged them to collaborate. Then he held up
his side of the bargain by increasing the state allocation for
the universities by 3.2 percent in his first budget, and by 8.8
percent in the second. He also backed a tuition freeze that
“The University System of Ohio is going to be the model
of the 21st-century university system,” says Chancellor
Eric Fingerhut. “Our obligation is to drive the economic
prosperity of Ohio.”
Ohio produces more
bachelor’s degrees per
capita than the national
average, but it ranks
a distant 35th in the
proportion of adults
with a college degree.
Larry Hamill, Black Star, for CrossTalk