In the mid-1980s, when Dr. Luis Proenza was developing his academic leadership skills as an American Council on Education fellow, a colleague who backed his nomination for the fellowship suggested Proenza, who was working in the Office of the President of the University of Georgia, consider becoming a college president someday.
Today, the Mexico City native, who touted his school in a series of ads during Super Bowl XLIV, is living the dream as president of the University of Akron. The post has also allowed him to emerge as one of the champions of revitalizing the one-time rubber and tire capital of the world – Akron, Ohio – by transforming the school into an educational and employment hub that’s become the buzz of northeastern Ohio and is helping save the city from the nation’s rust belt demise.
“He’s a visionary,” says Albert Fitzpatrick, a retired Akron newspaper executive who has worked with numerous business and civic organizations in Akron for 50 years.
“He’s been a tremendous asset to the city. He’s personable, approachable and he’s a great fundraiser.”
Proenza, who last year celebrated his 10th year as president, is more modest in assessing his role in Akron, one of the nation’s historic factory towns of the Midwest that has scrambled in recent years to revive itself. He says he helped galvanize the city around an asset already in its midst.
“The school looked like it had all the makings to become a major force,” Proenza says. He credits the Akron community for backing his efforts to transform the school into what he calls the “New Landscape for Learning” from a scattered collection of buildings where people taught and students learned.
Under Proenza’s watch, the university has added 15 new facilities, including an on-campus football stadium, the InfoCision Stadium-Summa Field, and an honors residence hall. It has made 17 additions to existing facilities, added 34 acres of green space to the campus and planted 30,000 trees. He has transformed the once largely commuter school into a traditional campus with some 80 buildings on a 280-acre span of land offering 300 academic programs in the heart of the city.
With the support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and local developers, the school’s University Park Alliance has generated more than $300 million in public and private investments, grants and programs to “revitalize” a 50- block area surrounding the school. Part of that effort has included acquisition by the school of financially troubled Quaker Square (original home of the Quaker Oats Company) for use as a dormitory. It has also purchased vacant and once major downtown properties, like Polsky’s Department Store, which has been converted into a classroom building. The transformation of the university area has also turned the school into one of the biggest landowners in the Akron area.
By the end of 2009, the comprehensive capital campaign launched in 2007 with a goal of raising $500 million attracted more than $620 million in contributions, contracts, pledges and gifts, Proenza says.
“We showcased what we had,” says Proenza, explaining the success of his efforts at the helm of the university where freshman enrollment has increased 34 percent since 2005.
Boosting the school’s diversity is getting added attention, with Proenza adopting a more aggressive posture on that front as he tries to establish a “new gold standard for a truly excellent American university, one that provides access to top-quality education for a broad range of citizens.”
Proenza hopes to boost student diversity at the school (12 percent Black, 1 percent Hispanic and 2 percent Asian) with the hiring of a new chief diversity officer, Lee Gill, creation of a campus-communitywide diversity council and mandate for “Inclusive Excellence” at the university.
“Unlike others, we shall be measured by how much value we add in enabling the success of our students,” Proenza says in a statement on the school’s Web site, “not how many students we exclude.”