Public spat erupts among NEOhio university bosses

We learn this morning – courtesy of our local newspaper — that one public university president here in Northeast Ohio isn’t playing nice with his partners in the higher-ed sandbox. Tut, tut, Scott Scarborough.

Last week, the University of Akron president announced plans to rebrand UA as “Ohio’s Polytechnic University.” It’s a bold idea and it makes sense from a marketing perspective, since Akron is best known for science and engineering, including the finest polymer engineering program anywhere. So why not play to those strengths rather than remain a second-tier state school with declining enrollment?

The presidents of the four other state schools in the region, Cleveland State, Kent State, Youngstown State, and the Northeast Ohio Medical College, are taking issue with Scarborough’s plan — or at least the way it was presented. Their co-authored op-ed appears in today’s Beacon Journal.

UA’s rebranding plan itself doesn’t appear to threaten cooperation between the schools, but the doomsday rationale on which Scarborough bases that plan is what rankles the other presidents. Here’s what the Beacon Journal’s Rick Armon reported last week:

UA must reposition itself in a competitive industry, especially when research predicts that half of all colleges and universities won’t exist in the next 50 years, Scarborough told an audience of about 230 people…

It is a risky strategy, Scarborough admitted, but so is doing nothing.

“The greater risk for universities like us … is to be perceived as a generic public university, with a limited reach, no clear identity, struggling to survive, and likely to fail,” he said. “Now that’s a risky strategy. And that’s the current path most regional state universities are on.”

Scarborough’s counterparts say their view of higher ed’s future is more optimistic and “based on the remarkable contributions of all of our region’s public universities.” Their op-ed cites wonderful examples of those contributions, but to be fair, it also ignores the long-range forecasts that predict that 50-year shakeout Scarborough refers to.

I don’t see how a powerful polytechnic university is a threat to other schools in the region or how such an entity threatens cooperation and collaboration. But as country crooner Charlie Rich once said, no one knows what goes on behind closed doors.

Is Scarborough the bad boy in this Gang of Five? Does he try to hoard all the marbles or push the other kids off the swings? No one is talking publicly about the dynamics of this group – nor should they. But today’s public commentary in the Beacon is probably not the best way to get Scarborough back to the sandbox.

If you hang around higher ed long enough, you learn to recognize the sound of saber rattling. It seldom changes anything, but it’s always there. I don’t write this piece to defend Scarborough or criticize his counterparts. Their positions both have merit. But you know that old saw about airing one’s dirty laundry? It’s not the best way to mend a relationship — nor is it a sound PR strategy. Because you seldom get the results you seek.

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