Solving Problems, Settling In
After leading East Carolina through five years of frenetic growth,
Steve Ballard considered leaving Greenville but then decided
ECU still ‘is the best fit for me.’ The feeling seems mutual.
By Steve Tuttle
Photography by Forrest Croce
right Auditorium was packed for the 2004 fall faculty convocation because everyone wanted to hear what East Carolina’s new chancellor would say about the recent upheavals on campus. His predecessor, William Muse, had resigned under a cloud following two critical internal audits, and the provost had been reassigned over concerns about his hiring practices. When Steve Ballard came to the podium he addressed the controversy much the same way he fielded grounders on his college baseball team: never back up.
“It is our responsibility to earn the public trust and to keep that trust,” Ballard said. “There is nothing more valuable to our long-term growth than to be known as an institution that can be trusted and that openly acknowledges and corrects its mistakes.”
Five years later, the Muse controversies have faded and East Carolina obviously has regained the public trust, as evidenced by the huge investments the state is making here for new classroom buildings, the School of Dentistry, the Heart Institute, the Family Medicine Center and other expensive projects. The public perception of ECU these days more often is defined by its acknowledged successes in easing the shortage of classroom teachers and health care providers, attacking obesity and other health disparities, promoting economic development in the East and widening college access through distance education. Even the football team is winning again.
How did East Carolina get from there to here in five short years? According to observers we consulted, it’s because Ballard, 60, followed through on a promise he made to the faculty that day: “We must get the right people on the bus and then make sure those people are working together—with each other, certainly with the faculty and with our community and constituents.”
In one of his first meetings with the Board of Trustees, Ballard identified 10 leadership positions he intended to fill with his own team. Today, a number of top administrators and most the deans are people Ballard hired, occasionally after easing someone out of the job who didn’t meet his standards. His personnel decisions have been proactive and decisive, such as when—just a few months on the job—he aborted a national search for a new athletic director and brought in Terry Holland. Most of the people Ballard put “on the bus” came from outside ECU but he turned to two campus veterans—both women—to sit up front and help steer. He moved Marilyn Sheerer from dean of education to provost and Phyllis Horns ’69 from dean of nursing to vice chancellor for health sciences. Also taking a seat up front was another woman, Deirdre Mageean, whom he brought in as vice chancellor for research and graduate studies. Most recently, he hired Paul Cunningham as the first African-American dean of a North Carolina medical school.
The planning and funding for the campus construction boom fueled by $190 million in state higher education bonds already was in place when he arrived, but Ballard oversaw the projects and brought them home on time and budget. East Carolina became the fastest-growing campus in the UNC system and will start the fall semester with more than 28,000 students, an increase of about 6,000 students in five years.
A typical comment one hears about Ballard is that he is a top-notch administrator and a nimble fixer of the myriad problems that inevitably crop up in an enterprise of over 5,000 employees. Observers give him credit for hiring good people, giving them a mission and then turning them loose to accomplish specific goals. He constantly stresses teamwork, as you might expect a former athlete would do.
The only criticism one hears is that he isn’t as visible in the Greenville community and in state leadership circles as many would like. The trustees made a friendly suggestion that he join a local civic club. But those who wish Ballard enjoyed a higher profile say they feel that way only because they see him as the most effective representative of the university. “He’s our thousand-watt bulb,” one prominent Pirate said. “We want him to shine.” This could partly be cultural: Ballard’s Midwestern reserve adjusting to life in a beach music and barbecue town.
Ballard caused some consternation in late January when he applied for the open chancellor position at Kansas State University. Some officials said they only learned about it by reading the paper. As quickly as his name popped up in connection with the K State job, however, it dropped out when Ballard withdrew from consideration after traveling there for the interview. He announced that he continued to believe ECU “is the right fit for me.” He says in the interview for this story that he intends to stay another five years. He would be 65 then.
“I think we are very fortunate to have attracted Steve Ballard to East Carolina,” said trustees Chairman Bob Greczyn. “I hope and expect that we will be able to keep him for the rest of his career.”
Ballard previously was provost at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. He spent his childhood in Galesburg, Ill., attended the University of Arizona and graduated there with distinction in 1970 with a bachelor’s degree in history. As shortstop and captain of the Arizona baseball team, he earned three varsity letters and played in the College World Series his senior year. Ballard’s longest tenure in academia was at the University of Oklahoma, where he spent 13 years on the faculty, served two terms on the Norman City Council and did a stint as mayor pro tem.
The following is a condensed version of an interview conducted in his office.
By about any yardstick you use, East Carolina has grown and changed tremendously in the five years you’ve been here—nearly 6,000 more students, several new buildings on campus, the new School of Dentistry. What do you think best characterizes these changes?
I think the growth really reflects that we have said that we’re going to do some things very well and we’re going to put our resources where our commitments are, and we’re going to make a difference. The other half of that is that our growth reflects a real authenticity about who we are and what we have to do, especially authenticity related to how we serve the 29 counties of eastern North Carolina. I feel really great about that.
Click the arrow at right to hear Chancellor Ballard talk about his vision for ECU