Saturday, November 06, 2004

Semesters: Veri's Revenge

In addition to giving a Shawnee State trustee the chance to tap into public monies, as I pointed out in my previous blog, the Portsmouth Floodwall murals also provided the artist an opportunity of showing a troubling period in the history of Shawnee State U. in an idyllically academic light.

The mural “SSU Expansion” stresses academics, not expansion, showing President Clive Veri (in the detail above) in his robes standing in front of Massie Hall talking to several graduating students. The mural does not show the dozens of homes in the area around Massie that were eminently domained and subsequently pilfered by a Shawnee State administrator on behalf of the overprivileged of Portsmouth, who coveted the doors, chandeliers, mirrors and other valuable accoutrements of these historic homes. The bulldozing of Portsmouth’s architectural heritage was part of SSU’s “expansion.” And as for academics, there is no way of telling from the mural that during Veri’s troubled nine years as president, from 1989 to 1998, SSU was annually consistently ranked by U.S. News as one of the worst liberal arts universities in the nation, near the very bottom of the fourth and bottom tier of small liberal arts institutions.

In spite of his poor performance as president, Veri regularly received commendations and merit raises from the trustees. If he was an abysmal failure with faculty (in the year prior to his resignation only 5% of the polled faculty gave him a vote of confidence), Veri was the darling of the trustees and the overprivileged of Portsmouth, whose obliging servant he became. As long as he did nothing to upset the corrupt status quo or upset the trustees, his incompetence was no bar to his remaining president of SSU. If a trustee, like Frank Waller, wanted to start a travel business that would eventually become the preferred agency for the university; and if another former trustee sold her white elephant house on Franklin Boulevard to SSU for much more than it was worth, Veri would have been the last to question whether there might be a conflict of interest.

Veri didn’t have a clue how to lead a small new state university in Ohio or how to operate in the shadow of SSU’s political godfather in Columbus, Vern Riffe. A heavy drinker and smoker, instead of dealing with difficult realities, Veri resorted to 1950 fantasies. As his model of what SSU might become, as I learned from a conversation with him, he took as his ideal a picturesque New England college, Middlebury, in Vermont, which he had not attended but which he looked enviously at when he was president of déclassé Lyndon State College, in a more remote part of the state. From a blue-collar ethnic background, Veri may never have recovered from the disappointment of not attending a picture-postcard New England college. He became SSU’s Great Gatsby, and an upper-class New England college, with its football, fraternities, and semesters, was his East Egg.

With no-confidence votes and rumors of scandals swirling around him, Veri resigned in 1998, possibly because he was pressured to. But as a reward for his servility, the trustees in his last months in office gave him a degree of satisfaction by endorsing one of his Gatsby dreams. Though they made no sense for the type of institution SSU was and is, semesters were mandated by the trustees, but they would not be imposed until after Veri had left. If semesters was originally a dream of Veri’s, what semesters became in his final embittered months as president was an act of revenge. What Veri dared not have the trustees do during his nine years – mandate semesters – they did in his last months in office, leaving the dirty work for some future president to deal with.

Politics, not academics, have always been the priority at SSU, and politicians not educators continue to call the shots, and as long as they do SSU will continue to have one of the worst reputations among small liberal arts colleges in the United States, as it has again this year. Among 217 small liberal arts universities, there are only four ranked lower than SSU by U.S. News, and those four survive not on the public treasury but on a wing and a prayer. It is a scandal that after eighteen years and many millions of dollars of state support and subsidies, SSU still has one of the worst academic reputations in the nation. And what is the best solution the trustees can come up with to improve SSU? To switch to semesters! Once it does make the switch, after several years of herculean fruitless efforts, SSU will have one more thing in common with Arkansas Baptist College, Barber Scotia College (NC), Christendom College (Va), and Christian Heritage College (Ca): they will all be on the semester calendar.