[dropcap]G[/dropcap]eoff Mearns brings a history that combines higher education with public service experience to Ball State University. Bold leadership will be the order of the day to continue positive forward momentum for our University. His enthusiasm and ambitious ideas will set the course for our next century. Here, he shares some insights for Ball State students, faculty and staff, and the greater Muncie community.
What about Ball State attracted you the most?
I believe in the transformative power of higher education, especially public higher education, and Ball State has a long history of student success and community impact. I was particularly impressed, though, by the University’s commitment to certain enduring core values — academic excellence, professional and personal integrity, social responsibility, and respect for every person in our community. Those values resonate with me, because these are the values that were instilled in me by my parents.
What were some of the other factors that influenced your decision to lead Ball State?
I am fortunate to inherit an institution with a strong financial foundation, thanks to the great work of our Board of Trustees, the support of our elected officials, and the dedication of our outstanding faculty and staff. Based on that strength, the Board approved the smallest tuition increase in more than 40 years, and the legislature rewarded us with additional operating appropriations and $87.5 million for the new science building.
The prudent management of our University’s finances is important, particularly for our students and their families, and it bodes well for the University’s partnership with Muncie and Delaware County.
Students want to be here at Ball State. The University had a record number of applications in 2016. In fact, the third-largest freshman class in our history enrolled last Fall. Our University is on pace to have an equally impressive number in 2017.
It’s also worth noting that, between 2010 and 2015, our four-year graduation rate improved more than any other public university in Indiana. That’s an excellent sign that we are doing things right.
What’s first on your agenda?
For the first few months, I will focus on building relationships, especially with students, faculty and staff, and alumni and donors. Before I can lead, I must listen and learn. I will also engage with the Muncie community to ensure Ball State remains involved with our friends and neighbors. We have a strong record of adding to the civic and economic vitality of this community, and I want
to build on that impact.
What do you see as the major challenges facing Ball State?
Return on investment is vital to our students and their families. We need to keep tuition affordable and to give our students a solid foundation for success after they graduate. These issues are not isolated to Ball State — they’re national. But our University has a proven record of delivering a quality education at a reasonable price. We will continue to achieve these objectives as we look at innovative ways to enhance the learning experience for our students.
What are some of the important trends in higher education? How does Ball State play in that space?
Our students’ education is more than just what they learn in our classrooms and laboratories. At Ball State, we provide quality, immersive learning opportunities — having students work directly with businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies to address community challenges. Our University is recognized for offering these experiences. Technology and blended learning are as important to us as they are to our students, and both will continue to play a key role in higher education.
Speaking of community challenges, Indiana state government has designated Muncie Community Schools as “fiscally impaired” and is appointing an emergency manager. What are your thoughts on that?
The whole Ball State community — students, faculty, staff, alumni, and administration — fully support Muncie Community Schools and, more importantly, the students and their families. As you know, we have a variety of partnerships with the school system, and we will continue them. And we will continue working with the school system and the state toward our shared goal of student academic excellence. A great university like Ball State needs a great city, like Muncie. And a great city needs great schools. We will grow and thrive by working together.
Do you think it will be difficult to adjust to living in Muncie?
Not at all. Jennifer and I are Midwesterners, so this feels natural to us. And the people here have been warm, welcoming, and helpful. We are grateful.
What are your thoughts on Ball State’s overall environmental record, and what are your plans regarding that?
I am impressed by what Ball State has already accomplished on environmental issues. Our University community has adopted a Statement on Sustainability. We are a signatory to the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) and the Talloires Declaration, and we are a charter member of the Sustainability Tracking Assessment and Rating System (STARS). We have integrated sustainability into our unit-level strategic plans and have installed a campuswide geothermal district heating and cooling system to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.
We host biennial Greening of the Campus (GOC) conferences, and our Council on the Environment (COTE) is the longest-standing such committee among colleges and universities in Indiana. We also offer a broad range of academic programs that engage sustainability, and we sponsor student groups such as the Ball State Energy Action Team (BEAT), Emerging Green Builders (EGB), the Natural Resources Club (NRC), and Students for Responsible Consumerism (SRC).
I will support Ball State’s considerable sustainability efforts and look for ways to enhance our commitment to these initiatives.
So there’s the Campus Master Plan, which is about buildings and landscapes, and there’s the Strategic Plan, which is about Ball State’s overall mission. What is your take on that?
The ambitious strategic plan that’s been in place is coming to a close in the next several months. Many successes have emanated from that plan, giving the University a strong platform from which to initiate a new, long-term strategic plan. We aspired to enroll bright, ambitious students, and we’ve achieved that: our 2016 freshman students’ average high school GPA is 3.45, and the average SAT score is 1611, above the national average. Moreover, 71 percent of our 2016 freshmen earned an Indiana Academic Honors Diploma or its equivalent. We celebrate diversity of all kinds here; more than 19 percent of our freshmen were from underrepresented minority groups — more than the 17 percent strategic plan goal.
Ball State is poised for greatness. I am eager to work with the Board of Trustees and my campus colleagues to develop a plan that will help us continue to be the University of choice for talented, resourceful students who will become successful graduates and leaders. We have shown Hoosier families — and the State of Indiana — a great return on their investment in our students.
State funding still is critical to all public universities. So are private gifts. How are we doing on that measure?
We are grateful that the legislature rewarded Ball State for its academic successes and ongoing fiscal responsibility, but we can’t rest on our laurels. We need to continue to enhance the great return on investment — for our students, their families, and the State of Indiana — for which Ball State is known.
We also are well aware of the challenges families face paying college tuition — and that’s a national issue, certainly not isolated to Ball State. Sixty percent of our students receive some kind of federal financial aid. Relative to other universities, our students graduate with moderate debt, on average $27,700. We want to keep that number down, without sacrificing the quality education that Ball State students expect and deserve.
We are grateful to our alumni and friends who support Ball State in so many ways. Our campus would not look like it does, nor would the offerings be as strong, without their generosity. We need their continued generous support so that we can achieve our full potential.
As you contemplate your career at Ball State, what would you most like to be known for? What should we expect from you?
Honesty, integrity, and transparency. There will be times when I make decisions that some folks won’t agree with — it’s part of the responsibility of leadership. But I will do my best to explain the reasons for my decisions. Every decision I make will be based on what I believe is in the best interests of our students and our University. That’s my commitment.