By Shianna Gibbons
Eight months into Helen Lafferty’s interim presidency is also the start of the 2023-24 academic year at Youngstown State University, and this year serves as a transitional period for changes to come.
Lafferty’s goals for this academic year are short-term because the national search for a new president is underway. One of those goals is to be present for YSU’s current needs.
“I need to be — for all of you here — what you need me to be. The better I know about you and the more I listen to you, the more I come to an understanding of what it is that makes you connected to YSU, the better I [can] do to … keep those connections in place,” Lafferty said.
Lafferty’s ability to keep those connections in place is rooted in her own connection to the city of Youngstown and YSU. She was born and raised in Youngstown and received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at YSU.
“I’m homegrown. Evergreen Avenue, Ursuline High School and a proud alumna of YSU,” Lafferty said.
Before the start of classes, YSU and the faculty union came to a three-year contract agreement. Lafferty said this was a significant accomplishment between the university and its faculty.
“We had an 89% affirmation from our faculty. I think the primary thing has been the quality of people on the negotiating teams from both sides. They realize we’re doing this for the betterment of our students,” Lafferty said. “When we come to understand, not agree, but understand — and care for people — great things can happen.”
The search for the new president is ongoing, according to Lafferty. She has no role in hiring a new president but said there will be a two-tier process.
WittKiefer, located in Pittsburgh, is the firm YSU is using to find presidential candidates. Once candidates are selected, the first tier starts.
First, candidates will be vetted by a committee of three board of trustee members and one alternative. Once the board approves, the second tier will be a committee of university constituents representing every part of the university.
Lafferty said a timeline for choosing a new president is always uncertain because of the different factors to consider. Still, she’s confident in the board’s ability to pick the best candidate for YSU.
Another challenge YSU and other higher education institutions are facing is the decline in enrollment. There aren’t any definitive numbers for YSU’s enrollment until 14 days after the beginning of the semester, but Lafferty said she believes YSU is doing better.
“I want those statistics when they are given to be accurate so that people can place their hope in them. I will say things are looking better and that’s a good place [to be],” Lafferty said.
Lafferty’s advice for students, especially incoming students, is to get involved on campus. Graduation is Lafferty’s goal for every student, but it’s also essential to be a part of the community.
“We have a tremendous university, we have a great mission, and we have great faculty,” Lafferty said. “When you’re just a student — which is good and purposeful — there isn’t anything to connect you with other students and the community.”
Lafferty said saying her goodbyes to the YSU community and the city of Youngstown will be hard because of its human spirit and grit.
“We’re in a city that doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles … But we have other things that I see in our students, faculty and staff. We have a lot of resilience,” Lafferty said. “It’s something that I think we can celebrate that a lot of universities might want … but they do not have that resilience and human spirit that just says ‘You got this. You can do this.’”