Chronicle of Higher Education
Recognizes Fingerhut's Impact
As Activist Schools Chancellor
Eric Fingerhut has been on the fast track almost since he was a kid. The energetic Cleveland Heights native graduated from Northwestern University before earning a law degree at Stanford and then returning to Cleveland for a series of early career successes. He helped launch Mike White's successful campaign for mayor from the offices of Cleveland Works, a then-respected nonprofit (which later went out of business after founder David Roth's drug problems came to light). He served as campaign manager and transition director for White before winning a seat of his own in the Ohio Senate, then quickly moved up the ladder by capturing a seat in the U.S. Congress, where he made a modest national impact as a star freshman during the heady early days of the Clinton Administration. He hadn't reached his 35th birthday, yet the New York Times' Maureen Dowd was writing columns about him (once, memorably, poking fun at his fledgling dating efforts) and Bill Clinton was inviting him to ride aboard Air Force One while bending his ear about an energy bill. His future seemed impossibly bright.
But he lost that seat to Steve LaTourette in the crushing mid-term election of 1994 made famous by Newt Gingrich's Contract With America. I'll never forget an election-eve Democratic rally I attended at a union hall in Garfield Heights, which then-Vice President Al Gore attended on crutches. The late Ohio Senator Howard Metzenbaum was on hand to warmly pass the generational torch to Fingerhut, his fellow Jewish northeast Ohioan. That kind of high-level backing must have made the loss that much more bitter for him.
Afterward, he spent several years in the wilderness, seemingly trying to regain his momentum while he decided what to do next. He practiced some law, managed the nonprofit Center for Community Solutions on an interim basis, ran an entrepreneurial center at Baldwin-Wallace College, and even ran a chronically underfunded campaign for the Senate against George Voinovich in 2004. He was keeping busy, burning off some of his legendary energy (I wish I'd taken video of him waiting in line once at a Heinen's grocery store, juggling a few groceries while manically trying to balance two phone calls). Still, you got the sense that his heart wasn't really in any of these things, and that none of them absorbed his full attention the way being a Congressman once had.
Until now, that is.
In his current job, as chancellor of Ohio schools, he's brought all his earnestness, energy, and policy wonkishness to bear on the state's central challenge--turning around its woeful record on seeing to it that enough of its citizens gain exposure to higher education to make this an employer-friendly state. By all accounts, he's done an extraordinary job selling a comprehensive rethinking of the state's educational system. He's having so much fun, in fact, that intimates say he'll bypass the chance to run for the Senate again when Voinovich's term runs out next year.
Last week, the bible of the higher education industry, the Chronicle of Higher Education, recognized the extraordinary energy that Fingerhut and his boss, Governor Ted Strickland, have injected into the state's educational system. I like the detail about how Strickland proved his seriousness to the state's university presidents by staying for an entire six-hour meeting. Still, the piece notes that his toughest test still lies ahead: how will he and the state respond to the tough economic climate of the next couple of years? Stay tuned.