By GEORGE NELSON | Metro Monthly Staff Writer
As president of Youngstown State University since 1992, Dr. Leslie Cochran has overseen a period of growth and change perhaps unprecedented in the institution’s history. New facilities around the campus include the Beeghly College of Education, student residence halls, an addition to Stambaugh Stadium and the $17 million investment in the “electronic campus.” Expansions in YSU’s programs include the University Scholars program, which offers full academic scholarships to top students, a program Cochran mentioned in one of his early speeches.
Looking back over his tenure as president of Youngstown State University, though, Cochran contends the most significant change at YSU has been in attitude.
“When I came I was told that the institution was essentially in neutral, in that we couldn’t do anything, we weren’t doing anything – I used the quote, ‘Woe is me,’ ” Cochran recalled. “There is a sense of pride on campus. I think there is currently a greatly extended sense of pride in our community about the institution. There is an attitude that we can do this, that we can work together and make it happen . . . There is a can-do attitude that has emerged on campus.”
Both Cochran and his wife, Lin, sat down recently to reflect on his eight years at YSU and their lives in the Mahoning Valley community. The interview was conducted at Penguin Place – the former YSU building known as Clingan-Waddell Hall, which the Cochrans refurbished. Within walking distance of Youngstown’s downtown, Penguin Place is part office (for Lin’s consulting business), part living quarters and, unsurprisingly, part shrine to its namesake, the Antarctic bird that serves as YSU’s mascot.
“We love to renovate, and frankly renovating a home into a nicer home just doesn’t do it for me,” Lin Cochran said. “I am much more intrigued, much more much more motivated, much more excited about taking a building that wasn’t a residence before and making it into one. We did that before and it was great.”
Some community leaders were doubtful about the hands-on project being undertaken by this new university leader and his spouse. When the Cochrans invited a group of people over to the building just prior to them getting started, the YSU president noted that local businessman C. Gilbert “Gib” James went around and offered to take up a collection to fund “mental therapy” for the couple.
“Of course, he was joking, but I think he was sort of not joking,” Lin Cochran observed.
“I think the other thing is people didn’t have a full understanding, or maybe an appreciation, is that this is what Lin and I do,” Cochran continued. “As I said, we personally built this and she’s decorated it and designed it. That’s what we do. Rather than playing golf, this is our hobby. This is therapy.
“It was our own time to be together. I think every couple tries to find things that both of you enjoy and so this was it. It was a labor of love,” he continued. “The building in some ways was too big, but it was the right building.” The location proved to be convenient not only for activities on campus, but also for attending events and meetings – including those for the multiple boards on which Lin has served – in the downtown.
The Cochrans’ decision to make their home in the downtown area and renovate the former campus building was just one of the departures from the norm. In contrast to past presidents and their spouses, the Cochrans frequently could be seen interacting in the greater Youngstown community, as well as being highly visible at university functions. Both Cochrans regularly toured the tailgate lots prior to football games, easily identified by the bright red hats each sported. (Leslie Cochran said he owns just one, but Lin has a wide selection, assuring a different one for each game.)
“I chose to make my career higher education, and I did that because I love higher education and I love the university experience, so we want to take advantage of the plays and the theater and the football games. That’s why my career is in higher education and not CEO in some other kind of company, because we enjoy that life-style,” Leslie Cochran observed. “To me, it doesn’t make much sense if you work at a university not to take advantage of all of the wonderful things a university has to offer.”
Their high visibility and involvement in the community reflects the Cochrans’ general philosophy.
“That’s just what we interpret is appropriate and expected in a contemporary university,” Lin Cochran explained. “It just seemed a normal thing that you do when you’re involved in a contemporary, progressive organization or institution.”
Leslie Cochran noted that he had long been critical of the “ivory tower” view of universities. In addition, there are other, practical reasons.
“The times have changed for how state universities used to function and how they need to and must function today,” Lin Cochran remarked. “And the funding of universities has changed. It used to be that you could pretty much count on tuition and state funding for everything you needed. Now you can’t do that anymore.”
“A bit part of it is fund raising. If you’re fund raising, you have to be in the community,” Leslie Cochran explained. “The other thing that we found, just professionally, this community didn’t have a really good feeling or appreciation for the quality of YSU, so if you’re going to tell your story you have to be out in the community.”
“There has to be this strong connection between the university and the community – for the community’s benefit and for the university’s development,” Lin Cochran affirmed.
Leslie Cochran recalled that early in his tenure we was informed that he wasn’t really the fifth president in YSU’s history – he was the second, because, he was told, “the first four were all alike,” and he and his wife “brought something different” to the school.
“There are probably lots of events that have happened over this period of time – some I have made a direct impact on, some I just happened to be here,” Leslie Cochran observed. “We’ve had a long list of significant qualitative changes in the institution, and I’m very proud of the quality enhancement of YSU. It’s often symbolized by the University Scholars program . . . I’m proud, for example, that we have a 54 percent increase in percentage of students with a 23 ACT or better.”
He admits he takes certain pride in that symbol, which the YSU Board of Trustees recently voted to name after him.
“I think all of us are proud when somebody thinks that you have done something that is worthy of putting your name on it. Particularly in higher education, naming opportunities are an important part of our tradition,” he observed.
“In the community sense, I’m proud that the community bought into the university and $26.5 million was raised in the campaign when we went out for $22 million,” he said. He noted that people used to joke that he was “off [his] rocker” that he was going to be able to raise that kind of money from the community.
“That’s about people buying into the university,” he reflected. “People don’t give money to something unless you believe.”
Leslie Cochran acknowledged that included among the tools he has had available to build the university’s reputation are the successes of YSU athletic programs, including the four national titles won by the university’s football team, noting that it helps any time a university president has positives about the organization.
“It has a very significant impact, particularly in this community because sports in this community are very important,” he observed. “I would say they’re more important in this community than in some, and that is because it is a way to show that you’re pretty good and that you can win.”
He contends that the first title win had an “extraordinary” impact on the community, one that few could have imagined. He recalled one of his early weekend visits to YSU in preparation for taking over as president. Having spent several hours at the Youngstown Historical Center for Industry and Labor, he prepared to return to campus.
“I walked out of that museum heading toward the campus and the first thing I saw was the top of the stadium, and I said to myself, now I understand why the football championship was so important, because if you understood the last 90 or 100 years of this community and the battles that were lost, and then you see this stadium flag up there . . . it was not just a national championship. It was a symbol that there is some hope and that we can rise again, so to speak,” he explained. “Just as the University Scholars program, I think, had a far greater impact on the campus and the community than I ever imagined when I made that statement in my speech that we were going to so this because all of a sudden it said quality is what we’re about, and football was quality.”
The university president readily acknowledges the role his spouse has played in any successes he has had at YSU. Lin Cochran probably is the most high profile “first lady” in YSU’s history, not only operating her consulting business and supporting her husband’s work with the university, but also serving on a number of area boards.
“In all fairness, she really has three full-time jobs,” Leslie Cochran observed, noting that his wife puts in as much time each week into community-related activities as many people do their jobs.
She is perhaps best known for her leadership role in efforts to revitalize downtown Youngstown, an area in which progress has been “slow and frustrating,” she concedes.
That is due in part to what she sees as a lack of desire on the part of the various parties involved to work together, as well as the lack of an overall plan for the downtown.
“We just don’t have a history of working together,” Leslie Cochran observed about the community, citing not only the traditionally adversarial relationship between labor and management and the fragmented objectives and jurisdictions of various agencies, but the myriad ethnic, economic, territorial and racial divisions of the region. Touching on this issue in one of his early speeches in the region, at a meeting of the Mahoning Valley Economic Development Corp., he noted how the number of economic development agencies in the region with overlapping objectives and uncoordinated operations could serve to impede development efforts.
“We don’t know how to use a process here to help compromise and have a united approach to doing things,” Lin Cochran explained. “We have no plan for going forward . . . I help organizations develop their strategic long-range plans for where they’re going and how they are going to get their organizations there. The city of Youngstown and all the institutions that focus on revitalization, there is not a common plan and there is not a sense of need by any of these organizations for such a thing, and I think that is basically what has inhibited the revitalization of downtown. We’ve been here for eight years; in eight years, significant changes should have occurred in the downtown.”
Although she is encouraged by the people who are trying to make a difference in the downtown, she admitted she also is disappointed that among the groups that have the power to make a difference, there is no real effort to educate themselves as to how revitalization has taken place in other communities and apply those lessons locally.
“We make decisions about doing things, but they go against everyone in some cases we know about what how to revitalize a city,” she observed. “We make no effort to learn these things. We’ve got to educate ourselves before we make decisions and we [as a community] don’t do that.”
It isn’t a condition that is isolated to the downtown, the Cochrans agreed, but is a syndrome of the community.
“We have been insulated as a community. People talk about this often – that we don’t know what is state of the art elsewhere,” Leslie Cochran said.
“When I came to the university, I found that very few of our administrative personnel ever went to national conferences,” he continued. “Very few of them were involved in statewide task forces. The university had never been a dynamic force in meetings in Columbus, and this is all part of this. For some reason, the community got caught in this kind of sense of neutral for 25 years . . . We’re trying to get out of this syndrome of this major community event, the closing of the [steel] mills, and it’s taken 25 years for people to get through this. In the meantime, whatever was state-of-the-art at that time has been replaced.”
Cochran also acknowledged that lack of planning was a problem for YSU as well.
“Previously, YSU did not have a strategic plan,” he explained. “Everything that we did in the last eight years at YSU was defined in the document ‘YSU 2000,’ which was produced seven or eight years ago to indicate the framework of where we were going.”
The situation Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley find themselves in, the Cochrans contend, is well defined in a study of the area prepared by the Harwood Group, “Waiting for the Future.” The report details the stages of community growth.
“We’re at the first stage,” Lin Cochran said. “We’re at an impasse and something has to change. We’ve got to break through and start helping our community grow by working together, and we’re not there yet.”
Leslie Cochran noted a similarity to when he was told he was the second YSU president.
“What happened in Youngstown was the same thing,” he remarked. “It had decades of the same. It didn’t take those normal steps of progression, and so the first hundred years were all alike.”
Now, with Dr. Leslie Cochran’s successor expected to take over in June, the Cochrans are looking to life after YSU. Even now, a home is under construction in North Carolina where the Cochrans plan to settle after they leave town.
“We’re going to be busy – we’re busy people,” Leslie Cochran said. “We’re going to be busy doing things that we have not done, things that we’ve set aside and said if we don’t do them now, when do you do them?
“I’m not taking on any new assignments . . . I may do something two years from now, but right now we want to focus and try to work hard at not working so hard.”
Lin Cochran said she probably will continue to do some consulting work, but plans to free up her schedule more. “I swear to Les probably at least once a week that I’m not going to get involved in community activities,” she said. “It just consumes you.”
“In both of our careers, our lives have been driven by work, and we love it – as you can see, this is what we do,” Leslie Cochran observed. “We’re going to continue to be engaged and be active. But there comes a time, it seems to me, that there is time to focus on other things. I have five grandsons in three different states. I see them once or twice a year. Now, that’s not a dominant part of my life but I’d like to have more of it.”
Just as they were questioned about their desire to live in downtown Youngstown, the Cochrans say they have been asked why they chose to make their retirement in North Carolina, an area prone to hurricanes.
“Hey, look at the kinds of risks and adventurous things we’ve been involved in. Hurricanes are nothing,” Lin Cochran observed.
“You get a lot of notice that they’re coming,” she quipped. “That’s not necessarily been true of other things that we’ve been through.”
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