Saturday, August 1, 2015

Plusquellic's back, and good for that!

"I'm back!" the animated man in a loose-fitting patterned shirt and jaunty hat exclaimed with a broad smile.   As I  approached him on the sidewalk outside the  Uncorked Wine Bar downtown,  he repeated:  "I"m back in my city."

Well, yes.  Deeply tanned, apparently well-rested  from his tortured exit  and no longer in his dark mayoral suit, Don Plusquellic  was mingling with others ,  one of whom asked him to take off his hat.  When he did, it revealed a brush cut that had replaced his carefully groomed white hair that was a trademark of his Hollywood persona at City Hall. It was then that you came to realize that now out of the office he had occupied for 28 years, he was indeed tailoring hmself for a new life in the city.

Inside the noisy bar, a large crowd had  come to the reception for Pete Nischt, the   rising young Democratic party executive director who announced his candidacy for the Akron school board. The event was hosted by County Executive Russ Pry, who sat unobtrusively at the rear of the long narrow room to observe the  festivities..

Nischt will need all of the support that he can muster in a three-way race involving Debbie Walsh, Alex Arshinkoff's executive director at county Republican headquarters and Ernie Tarle, Plusquellic's nemesis. Need I say more?

Although the former mayor said he might take some time to work for Hillary Clinton in Iowa,  his political presence doubtless will be felt in his hometown as well as the University of Akron campus.  More than one person remarked that  Team Scarborough might have had second thoughts about an amateurish rollout of  job cuts  that  downsized the school's academic credibility  had Plusquellic, a feisty soul, been in its face.

No fault of interim Mayor Jeff Fusco, nor interim Democratic chairman  Sandra Kurt, both temporary caretakers of city or party business, the dominoes fell quickly in the post-Plusquellic scramble.  So  the party will need an infusion of kinetic energy for the forthcoming mayoral primary race pitting Dan Horrigan against Mike Williams and Frank Comunale.  I'm told Williams, an African American and perennial candidate, is already trying to fashion the contest into a racially acute  contest. If he persists, it will create two ugly camps that will divide a city with a progressive reputation in race relations.

The voters need to know the stakes as Akron approaches a critical decision for its future. So welcome back, Mr. Plusquellic.  Is there anything you can do about the city that you have long voiced with pride?

Thursday, July 30, 2015

A UA success story is only $843,000 away

One of the big winners from the University of Akron shakedown was an outfit that you've probably never  heard of from the Cleveland area.   It was mentioned in the Beacon Journal as Trust Navigator LLC.  Was I right?

The paper said the company to which the Trustees awarded an $843,000 contract would   supply students with "success coaches".

Our curiosity took us further because I have no idea what this is all about.     According to its web site, it will give the university one coach for every 150 students, meeting with each one once a month to "redirect" them.

A source who checked this out reported that Trust Navigator is actually three people in Gates Mills.   Each is called an ambassador.  There's Thomas Roulston, managing partner of Roulston Investment in Cleveland.  He also has a compnay dealing  with market/investment research. .Ron Reho, the chief operations ambassador is a UA graduate with a real job as interim general manager for Flohr Machine.  The third principal is Grace Roulston, an Ohio University graduate  with a degree in communication and film studies.  (Reho told the BJ that he wouldn't be available to talk until next week.)

Said my source:  "I don't know who is doing the actual work. Go figure."

I called Wayne Hill, the UA vice president of marketing,  to learn more about whether there was competitive bidding on the job.    He would only say there were two bids. And the winner was chosen by a "campus committee".    Don't know the second bidder, if in fact there ever was one.  Anyone?

There are blind spots all over the campus today. Even Ted Mallo, the counsel to the Board of Trustees, isn't responding to  e-mails.

 By the way, the LLC that follows the name of Trust Navigator refers to limited liability company.  I'm told by a lawyer friend that it means that if the company is  sued the operators - eh..ambassadors - would  not be liable. Only the company,not individuals,  could be fined or something.

So $843,000 for a monthly visit, huh? Do they make house calls?   I think I might need some redirection.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Incoming reports from the front

Interesting note from a reader:

UAkron laid off 30 people from its Information Technology Dept. at a time when they are desperately trying to compete in the online education arena.

Not to mention their ability to handle the day to day tech problems is greatly diminished. You have 30,000 people at the university downloading who knows what from around the world. It's a constant battle to keep the network safe  under the best of circumstances. I can't imagine this will turn out well.
About 3 people I worked with got laid off.

On mosquitos, Trump and the UA train wreck

Are you enjoying the summer of mosquitos, Donald Trump and chaos on the University of Akron campus?

Thought so.  There  are,  however,  two rays of  hope.  The mosquitos will move out with the season.  And  the public will tire of Trump's hysterical comedy routine.

Unfortunately,  the UA chaos is another matter that could become the face of its new polytechnic brand around the land..

The workout on the school's budget deficit could hardly have been handled  in a more ham-handed manner and raises serious questions about the competence of the school's president (Toledo was the last stop in his checkered career).  And what about the passive engagement  of the Board of Trustees in dealing with budgets and other University matters.

Nothing demonstrates this dismal lack of awareness than the original plan to tack on $50 per credit hour for higher-end courses.  The idea raised a helluva stink on the campus as a disguised tuition increase and was withdrawn with the word from the administration that it had discovered a $4 millon increase in its money from the state.  Did it take weeks to "discover" it? Or had the  administration merely found a convenient way to calm the outrage?   If so, more competent budgetary watchdogs are desperately needed.

As for the $60 million debt. The red ink didn't start flowing yesterday.  Former Akron Mayor Roy Ray recalls that as UA's vice president of finance (2002-2007) he  made a thorough examination of the debt and raised red flags to the administration.

 He advised then-President Luis Proenza that the situation was worrisome  and should be given priority  before building a new football stadium.   (He was later eased out of his job) .

"They didn't want to hear it ," Ray says today.  He says today's reported debt could be on the conservative side and may be as high as $80 million. 

But as the dust settles,  isn't it fair to ask about the Board's involvement in heading off - disaster?  Trustees are political appointees, often  with no more than incidental academic acumen, who are periodically on the campus in joyful  tail-wagging silence. They prefer the title  without the attention to their academic obligation.  Faculty and students are  abstract business metrics.

Much of the power resides in the president that the trustees hire, who then go back to their day jobs. Of the many boards that I've witnessed over the years, the current one is one of the weakest, avoiding the slightest discontent with the CEO. If it were not, the school wouldn't be in such a mess.

 As former Judge  and UA board member Jane Bond told me, Proenza fed the board with feel-good stuff -  a form of "soma", the Brave New World's happy pill - and simply went along with it.  But look how that has taken  down the institution and integral part of the community after it ratified the destruction of the soul of E.J. Thomas Hall for the Performing Arts.  Will the name be changed to E.J. Thomas Hall for the Performing Techies?  Another field house for the football team?  I tried to get some trustee feedback, but my calls weren't returned.  

Pop Quiz: When did university presidents, for better or worse, become Gods?  

Second question:    When will  the Beacon Journal's editorial writers finally acknowledge that a gravely mishandled situation is unfolding on a stretch of land within walking distance of the paper's offices?

But does Antonin do windows, too?

I keep this book as a paperweight on my  cluttered desk as a  reminder that we have yet to "form a more perfect union and establish justice".

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

From the campus, more victims from the front

The body count at the University of Akron continues to grow. The UA  Press and the Multicultural Center have been shut down. That means  five more  employes will be looking for jobs.  Because of his contract, UA Press director  Thomas Bacher  will stay on until January. It isn't clear what he will do to fill his day in the meantime.

The Plain Dealer's Karen Farkas quoted  Board Chairman Jonathan Pavloff after Monday's Trustees meeting as purring: "The board appreciates the dedication of the employees who are affected by these actions.  We know that they have been and remain committed to the success and well-being of our students and that they have served them and the university well."

But apparently not well enough, although I don't doubt that the latest casualties heard the same  purring from the leadership on Tuesday.

As these units are shut down, I will ask again:  When does a university stop being a university?

From the many people that I've talked to the past couple of days, there is agreement that the damage to the school's reputation has been deep and will hardly benefit  President Scott Scarborough's promise to rebrand the university.

As President  Clinton once said, when you are in a hole put your  shovel down and stop digging.

Bouquets still in fashion at UA

Today's follow-up questions in the wake of the Monday morning University of Akron Board of Trustees  somber epitaph for the staff:

Why do people at the top  hurry to  purr once they have barked?   I'm thinking of President Scott Scarborough's words to the Beacon Journal, which had long been silent about the crises since Scarborough 's announcement weeks ago that the axe would fall.

He said  he planned to have conversations with everyone who was laid off because "it's the only right and fair thing to do to show them the respect and courtesy they  deserve".
Oh?  How does that square with the weeks of painful waiting by the staff to learn of their fate?

But life goes on.   UA trucks were seen at the president's house this week  with crews planting flowers. The gardeners, at least,  are safe.

What's a GOP campaign without a DeWine switch?

With Atty. Gen. Mike DeWine, life is just one damn presidential candidate or another.  That much became clear in a  Plunderbund report that DeWine has again switched an endorsement for a GOP presidential contsender.

If you'll recall,  DeWine pulled the same stunt in 2112 and startled the planet when he switched from Mitt Romney to Rick Santorum in the heat of the GOP primary season.   It was a down moment for Mitt and served DeWine's ally, Summit County Republican chairman Alex Arshinkoff's need to join the parade by splashing Santorum into a big Republican county dinner, where Alex could boast that his poll determined Santorum to be the overwhelming favorite among the  guests.

It is now 2015, and DeWine isn't one to take chances.  So he's  now endorsed John Kasich and dumped  Santorum.  It it doesn't really matter except that we  spectators can always use another laugh to shield us from the madness of the Unsweet 16 season.

There was a time when DeWine was said to be energized with the thought of being the U.S. AG  under a Republican president.  Now, there's speculation that he's positioning himself to run as Kasich's successor in 2018. How cruel. That's a long time for the state's voters to wait for his contributons to their  welfare.

(Reposted from Plunderbund)

Monday, July 27, 2015

The fall of the house of Knight and Thomas

As University of Akron President Scott Scarborough  issued his very businesslike death warrants  Monday for working folks on the campus, the staff at E.J.Thomas Hall for the Performing Arts gloomily awaited their fates when a UA human resources person and police officer arrived with horrific news:  the entire staff including Dan Dahl, the executive director for a  quarter-century, were severed.

Think of it, people,  and don't tell me something had to give because the building itself was a  hole in the budget.   There were plenty of places including the failed but expensive football program that could have taken a few hits, too, as were the newly arriving  highly paid executives at the top of the heap.

By late afternoon there were still unanswered questions  that season ticketholders might be asking if the school hadn't closed the ticket office, too. Even with those who might be sympathetic with the UA leadership, who could defend the amateurish way they handled it? They lost me when they advised the staff that they would have to take a 2-week administrative leave,   return for six months, and then part company again. As I've written, it all had the makings of a hunt-and-peck game plan.

Or how about the front office's notion that it would allow families of the fired workers to attend UA at cut rate tuition?  Nice.  How do you think that will play? Like the $50 per credit hour added and then rescinded?  Or the denial that the school's name would be changed but later change it?

This wasn't your ordinary housecleaning.  the entire faculty and staff were frozen in the weeks leading up to Monday's brief  trustees meeting in which Scarborough read a statement that was obviously honed in executive session so that he and the board could circle the wagon without taking questions from the dissenters on  hand.

Sadly, the sdministration's hit on the hall upended its long relationship with the Akron area.  When the glamorous place opened in 1973, out- of- town writers from the New York Times,  Newsweek and other publications  raved about its glorious birth.  Times  architecture writer Ada Louise Huxtable declared it be a building "in which any world capital could be proud" and Newsweek described it as one of the "most innovative"  U.S.   cultural centers.

Two  of Akron civic leaders saw it as an important cultural initiative for a progressive city.  To that end,"Eddie" Thomas , the Goodyear board chairman, put up $1.25 million toward the $14 million construction cost, and his close friend John S.Knight , contributed $500,000. The fountain outside the building bears his mother's name, Clara.  The Knight Foundation later added a $1 million grant for programming.  That should settle any question about the city's stake in UA.

Howard Tolley, who was Goodyear manager of community relations during the Thomas years, remembers the rationale for the campus-city partnership and was stunned by   Monday's action.

"That's a backhand to the memory of Eddie Thomas.  This is incomprehensible," Tolley said.

 Dahl agreed.   "The community needs to understand that the Board of Trustees is not a private concern and that we are there for people outside the campus, too. It's bad for the community." You bet.  Check with restaurant owners downtown who enjoy business arriving from the campus. Did anybody even consider the economic consequences of trying to undo the sins of the past decade of thoughtless building under
Team Proenza?    Yes, the football stadium, too.

We heard some jittery talk when Scarborough  was hired in the spring 2014.  Some of it were negatives that accompanied him.  Or as a Toledo Blade source  told me:  "People hated him.  He doesn't look at a university as academic".  Business, yes. But as Mitt Romney might have said, students and faculty are people, too.

I would add that he hasn' 't as yet considered an urban campus as a critical  part of the larger community. Over at Akron City Hall, interim  Mayor  Jeff Fusco was working to piece together the bits that came his way from the campus.

And the largely anonymous political trustees, who prefer it that way, were happy to have the new guy.  Anonymous,? You can find their roster on UA's home page.  Interesting.  
In bringing him to Akron, they have settled on the academic version of a hired gun for $450,000.  Nice work, if you can get it.  Some staff members at E.J. may not be that lucky.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

For UA Trustees: Just another day at the office?

Monday will be a critical day for the University of Akron  as well as the city and surrounding area itself.

Unanswered questions about the school may be answered.  And then, considering the reticence of everybody concerned, may not.  Will the University remain a university in name only, instead of a place where ideas have room to ferment in a traditional  academic culture? Or will the Board of Trustees, who will be meeting Monday morning,    address itself to the school's  severely damaged image and promise to do better?

Oh, I know. UA has a $60 million (or more) debt and is attempting to scrub  $40 million of it by cutting 215 MORE jobs on top of what it's already lanced the past few years while adding princely paid managers as the pick of its litter.   Will E.J. Thomas Hall, one of the brighter lights on campus with a strong public reach, become a shell of a once proud edifice?

And what about that silly billboard that says you can save $5,000 by  taking six classes?    What a demeaning concession to cheap commercialism  for a school of  assumed higher goals.  Will there next be BOGO promotions?  

The decline at the downtown  campus has been occurring for  more than decade, much of which happened  when former President Luis Proenza went on a spending spree without the money to back it up.  Where was the Board of Trustees at that time?  Meanwhile, our once influential local newspaper has played a mostly passive role.  (Passive?   Not a story in the weeks following the original announcement of the looming shrinkage by President Scott Scarborough!)  

The are plenty of F grades to go around.

Local political leaders are deeply concerned that the lost  taxes will hurt, particularly after the rubes in the legislature cut $2.2 million from Akron's local government funds.

How bleak have  been the weeks been since the Scarborough announcement?  Much of the gloom has settled on E.J. Thomas Hall, which may have been in the cross hairs of a total shutdown.  I'm told that inquiries were made by UA to the Civic Theater's management about whether it could handle the Akron Symphony Orchestra and Tuesday Musical seasons that were scheduled for E.J.  They were simply told NO.

How brutal that long-time faculty and staff were hearing these things without a word from the UA brass. As one veteran staffer put it:  "The campus has been freaking out." So much for the morale at a school  fumbling to rebrand itself.

The only hero arising from these flickering embers is Larry Snider, the  distinguished Professor of Music who blistered the administration and trustees for making a bad situation even worse with a hit-and-run announcement of mysterious cuts.

In a public notice,  Snider  urged everyone with a stake in UA's future to turn out at 7:30 make their presence felt at the Board of Trustees meeting Monday in the Student Union.

I don't know it will work. Bush-league institutional inertia has been in place on this deal locking lips across the campus as a business model. Why not an academic model instead in which  students learn things, graduate and get on with their lives?

If there's  anything these political appointees don't want to hear, it's  that they made some  horrendous mistakes, errors of omission as well as commission.

It 's  an epic take-down of UA-style  higher ed.  And even considering the damage to the school's reputation, it's likely to stay that way for a long time.