MUNCIE, Ind. (AP) — Ball State University President Paul Ferguson abandoned the traditional “State of the University” speech when he faced hundreds of faculty from the stage at Emens Auditorium on Friday, saying he hasn’t been on the job long enough (two weeks).
Instead, he delivered what he called “Paul’s first impression address” sprinkled with humorous story-telling to kick off the 2014-15 school year.
Afterward, the faculty’s first impression of BSU’s 15th president, whose talk drew applause, laughter and a standing ovation, was that he was warm, personable and funny for an administrator.
“He doesn’t sound like a guy who’s caught up in mindless metrics,” James McClure, a professor of economics, told The Star Press (http://tspne.ws/1laa8Ec). “That’s not typical. If he’s a typical guy, he doesn’t sound like it.”
Jennifer Blackmer, an associate professor of theatre and the director of immersive learning at Ball State, said Ferguson “seems to understand us very well” and described him as “warm, inviting and funny.” Echoing McClure, she said, “All the messages we hear from outside are accountability, accountability, accountability.”
Ferguson is the type of person who, when you first meet him, “it feels like you’ve known him for a longer time,” said Guillermo Vasquez de Velasco, dean of the college of architecture and planning.
According to the Indiana Commission for Higher Education (ICHE), which spent two days on the BSU campus this week, an extra year of college can can cost a student nearly $50,000 in extra tuition, lost wages and related costs. For the past several budget cycles, funding for higher education from the state of Indiana has been tied to performance metrics including number of degrees produced and getting students out the door in four years.
“We are committed to our students’ success,” Ferguson said during his remarks, which he did not read from a script. “The early signs of our commitment to enhancing retention and graduation rates are in line with what are expected from our regulatory agencies ... Do we want our students to graduate in four years? Sure. We’ve got to figure out ways to help them do that and maintain the quality of the experience.”
The average number of degrees awarded by BSU to in-state students has risen from 3,398 per year to 4,006 per year, while the on-time graduation rate for in-state students has increased from 32 percent to 36.5 percent.
One of Ferguson’s first impressions of Ball State is that it has been well managed financially for a long time. Cost-cutting measures to keep tuition down include the geothermal heating cooling system and controlling employee health insurance expenses, he noted.
Other first impressions include faculty scholarship, innovation and productivity; high engagement with Muncie and other Indiana communities; an immersive learning program that “I suggest to you nobody is on the road to doing it better;” distinctive undergraduate education; and “vibrant student life.”
Ferguson met with 3,600 freshmen at Worthen Arena on Thursday night.
“They didn’t really come to hear me,” Ferguson said. “They came to get tuition — the half-court (basketball) shot to get free tuition. (Provost) Terry (King), I think we need to do something with the faculty like that.”
Earlier this week, Ferguson took members of ICHE on a tour of the outdated Cooper Science Complex, where members of the commission met biology, chemistry and nursing faculty.
The president said he could not be prouder of those faculty.
“What came through was the world class work they are doing,” he said. “And think what we could do with world class facilities.”
BSU’s top capital request to the state next year will be funding for the renovation or replacement of Cooper.
Ferguson himself is a former scientist and science professor. He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and a doctorate in pharmacology/toxicology.
To his knowledge, he is the only toxicologist to serve as the president of a university in the United States.
He was asked by members of ICHE how a toxicologist becomes a university president, what skill sets a toxicologist would have that would benefit a president.
Which reminded Ferguson of the time when he was a provost at another university. He had just hired a new dean. As Ferguson was signing the contract, the new dean reminded Ferguson that his doctorate was in philosophy.
“I know,” Ferguson told the dean. “He said, ‘In grad school they trained us to argue a lot.‘ My red flag is starting to go up. The new dean is saying, ‘I’m going to come in and argue and push you to the limits and engage in philosophical arguments sometimes. I want to let you know, Paul, I was trained in grad school to argue — and argue well.‘ “
Concluding the story, Ferguson said, “That is when I first thought, ‘What is in my toxicology toolbar?‘ So I kind of leaned back and said, ‘John, the only thing I can say is in grad school they taught us how to poison people.‘ “
The audience laughed and applauded.
Ferguson also drew laughter during the annual presentation of faculty awards when he punched his fist in the air after it was announced that one of the winners had done research involving pharmaceuticals.
Information from: The Star Press, http://www.thestarpress.com