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Scott Scarborough has no qualms defining his vision as the president of the University of Akron

By Nina Polien Light
Photo by Doug Khrenovsky

When prospective students and potential employers of current students think about the University of Akron, Scott Scarborough wants them to hold the university in the same regard as Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, and Texas Tech.

Scarborough, who assumed presidency of UA in July 2014, spent the first 10 months of his tenure working with university personnel to create new strategic plans for each of UA’s 11 colleges, revisit the university’s overall strategic plan, and — in a move that has elicited a great deal of chatter — propose repositioning UA as “Ohio’s Polytechnic University.” The rebranding was announced May 15 after determining UA’s historical strengths align with what the higher education market demands and prospective employers desire.

“The first challenge is to define the term and make the case of why (polytechnic) fits who we are and what the region needs from us,” Scarborough says. “This isn’t just a marketing campaign but a substantive new direction.”

Polytechnic institutes share five characteristics, he explains: They are career-focused, rely on experiential learning, foster connections between industry and educational programs, concentrate on the use and study of technology in academic programs, and unite the arts and humanities with science and technology to provide students with skills employers value. To that end, the creation of three new centers was also announced on May 15. The centers focus on choreography; data science and information technology; and experiential learning, entrepreneurship, and civic engagement.

Polytechnic institutes are often mistakenly associated exclusively with studies in the STEM disciplines because both rely on experiential learning and modern technology. Scarborough says these attributes can easily be applied to dance or political science.

“That’s one of our strengths — social sciences taught in a polytechnic way at our Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics,” he says. “For politics, there’s no better place than a polytechnic university. The way it’s taught connects students with those actually practicing applied politics. Student learn the current technology campaign strategists use to run a campaign.”

Scarborough contends that UA’s polymer science and engineering programs are already among the Top 5 in the world.

“But to be great, you must have a preponderance of programs that produce critical mass and scale to survive,” he says, noting UA offers 225 degrees and 80 certificate programs.

Dispelling rumors that the university will change its name has not deterred some folks from expressing skepticism with UA’s rebranding, but Scarborough does not dwell on the naysayers.

“If you can’t be all things to all people, you must selectively determine where you want to be great, look at your strengths, and see if the market matches,” he says. “The moment someone makes a decision to deal with reality, someone will be unhappy.”

The reality, he explained in a May 15 speech to the Cleveland City Club, is that half of today’s universities — including some in the region — will not exist in 50 years if they do not adapt to change. The message upset some audience members, including four Northeast Ohio university presidents who expressed their displeasure in a letter to Scarborough.

“That’s not my opinion, and (the idea) is not new” Scarborough says, pointing to May 2015 articles in Fast Company and The Chronicle Review that echo that view. “What’s new is, how will each university deal with that reality? Look at what’s happened to the healthcare industry in the last couple of decades. It is certainly possible it could happen to higher education, especially if higher education doesn’t adapt in ways it needs to. (UA) will adapt, and this is the direction we’re going to take. It’s consistent with our historical strengths and it’s what students and industry want.”

Also on Scarborough’s agenda is offering classes common to all majors at a reduced price. This will lessen the financial burden on freshmen at a time when they are most academically vulnerable. Other universities have done that, Scarborough says, pointing to the Tennessee Promise, Kalamazoo Promise, and Arizona State University’s policy of offering discounted first-year online classes.

“It will be good for students and the University of Akron,” he says. “If more universities decide to do the same, it will be good for higher education in general.”

Scarborough’s ascension to president of a university of 26,000 students (down from a high of 31,000 seven years ago) followed a nontraditional path. After graduating from the University of Texas with a degree in accounting, he took a job at a Big 8 international accounting firm. The firm volunteered him to teach a night class in accounting at a nearby college, where the education bug bit him. From there, he worked on the business side of education at the University of Texas, where he earned an MBA and a PhD in strategic management, then became provost at the University of Toledo before landing in Akron last summer.

In his current position, Scarborough flips on his computer at 5 a.m. and often answers emails until 10 p.m. In between, he reports to a nine-person, governor-appointed board and works with faculty senate, student government, faculty and employee unions, and other constituency groups to guide the university.

“Being a university president is more like being the mayor of a town than it is CEO of a corporation,” he says. “You need to know not only what needs to be done to elevate the institution but how to navigate the constituency processes to gain support to do that. You have thousands of highly educated people who want to be involved in the decision-making.”

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