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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

W

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.

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Q: 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?

A: 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


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When I got here there were too many people who were willing to discount East Carolina University and I honestly believe that nobody is discounting us now. We may never be seen as the kind of institution that Chapel Hill is. Frankly that’s never been our goal and never should be our goal. But for what we say we’re going to do, the reputation that we’ve gained for authenticity is real important to our future.

Q:
Other than a little more gray hair, how have you changed in the past five years?

A:
I feel like I understand the contributions of this institution better than when I took the job by a long shot. I certainly understand the ways that a public university can really make a difference, and that’s important. I think I am a little more balanced in my life and how I think about how I can make a difference.

Q. In the time you’ve been here, East Carolina has enjoyed the best funding from the General Assembly it has received in decades. Even as the recession began last year the legislature recommitted $107 million for the Family Medicine Center and the School of Dentistry. What has happened to increase the legislature’s willingness to fund East Carolina projects, and how much of the credit for that should go to your team?

chartsA. I think this authenticity question really is the starting point. We told people we would do some things and not others, and that we would do them well and make a contribution to North Carolina and we would increase that contribution. We were able to convince people that this was the case. So when we said we wanted a dental school, people listened to us. That’s always hard for a university.

When I first came here people said,  ‘How soon are you going to start a law school, are we going to have an engineering school like N.C State?’ And all those things are legitimate questions but they are not ECU, they’re not the major contribution we can make, at least in my view. Some people disagree with me on that. And I think it had a lot to do with how we are perceived in the bigger political circles.

The money we have received, we are very proud of because it reflects a new appreciation of East Carolina. We have had tremendous support from [UNC President] Erskine Bowles, [Senate President Pro Tem] Marc Basnight and [House Speaker] Joe Hackney. We would not have a dental school today if it were not for Erskine Bowles. Our Board of Trustees really stepped up at some key places. I want to single out two. David Brody was tireless in his support of the Family Medicine Center, which resulted in almost $40 million last year. David Redwine ’72 was absolutely critical at many stages. There was not one time that I called David [Redwine] and said, ‘We need some help, can you go with me to see the speaker or see the appropriations chair,’ that he wasn’t there.

People don’t see the amount of tireless effort by our internal team to do all the things necessary to take advantage of the support we had. In many cases they had to put together hundreds and hundreds of pages of documentation in order to get the $100 million we now have for the Dental School. It was always on time, always responsive to the General Administration’s requests. Every vote of the Board of Governors was always unanimous. Those things don’t happen by accident. We were able to address the questions and convince people that we knew what we were doing. I think the internal team of a couple dozen people made a huge difference.

Q: Now we’re in a recession and you’re struggling to cut spending by 7 percent this year and you’re preparing a plan for another 7 percent cut next fiscal year. As an administrator, how difficult is it to suddenly have to take your foot off the gas and hit the brake?
A: In some ways we’re not taking our foot off the gas. We’re continuing to fund our strategic priorities. They will remain the guidepost by which we do resource allocation. I don’t think we’ve fully stopped accelerating. Having said that, yes, we have to step back a little bit and take account of budget scenarios. We’ve already lost $15 million this year; it could easily get to $20 million. Worst-case scenarios have maybe as much as $50 to $60 million lost over a three-year period. We will have to do some things differently, but I view it as a focusing effort and a prioritizing effort and not a stoppage in what we said we would do or [deviating from] our mission.

Q. What categories or functions have you cut so far?

A: We’re at a period right now when we’re making one-time reductions, which means you have to stop spending when you get to 94–93 percent of what the legislature has promised. We haven’t cut programs this year but we have stopped spending on almost everything that is discretionary. When things turn around we can immediately go back to those activities. The real crunch comes in the next biennium if the legislature says your base budget goes from $260 million in state dollars to maybe $225 or less money than that, then we have to stop doing some things. We have been preparing for that all year; we have a campus-wide task force and I think it’s quite likely that in three years we will be doing fewer things at ECU but we won’t sacrifice the priorities we have established.

Q. Someone once said you should never waste a good crisis. Is this crisis an opportunity for you to prune some ongoing academic initiatives?

A. Yes, there certainly could be, and Provost Marilyn Sheerer and Vice Chancellor Phyllis Horns have been looking at those for months now. Some programs that may no longer be attractive to students because the jobs have changed or the need has changed will have to be consolidated or eliminated.

What happens in universities is, majors and concentrations and programs get put in place and new ones eventually overtake them, but the old ones stay there and the next thing you know you have two faculty members teaching two students. Now, if you are a great piano program, that’s appropriate; that’s how you produce Van Cliburn medal winners. But that may not be the case in [most other disciplines]. Those are exactly the kind of questions we have to ask.

Let me hasten to add that it’s not just academic programs [under review]. We led the state in responding to President Bowles’ efficiency initiative. We cut out administrative duplication, we consolidated things, we centralized things. [Assistant Vice Chancellor] Steve Duncan’s analysis is we saved over $13 million over the last three years, almost all of it on the administrative side. If we can do business better in any area, we will.

Q: You were in the news in January when you applied for but then withdrew from the open chancellor position at Kansas State University. Why did you apply and why did you withdraw?

A: I’m tempted to use the Alex Rodriguez excuse that I was young, naïve and stupid. [I applied for the job] for two reasons: I have great respect for that university and knew a lot about it; and, secondly, it had some locational advantage for both my family and my wife’s family [who are Midwesterners]. Every now and then I think it’s good to take a look out there and see what’s going on. That institution is the nation’s oldest land grant, which is consistent with my own values of outreach, engagement and making sure the resources of a public university serve a state and a region.

There appeared to be a great fit. But what I found when I went there, I really believe that ECU is a much better fit for me than Kansas State. And I actually think ECU has even more opportunities to make a difference for our society even though we’re not a land grant [because] we have the same values here. I think that for the kind of things I can make a difference in, this is a better place for Nancy and me. I think it was a legitimate exercise, but when we got back in town we realized this is where we want to be.

Q: East Carolina will admit fewer freshmen this fall than it did last year as the university implements higher admission standards. For many people in eastern North Carolina, East Carolina has always represented an open door. Is that door closing a bit?

A: No, I don’t think the door is closing. I think we think about who to let in the door a little bit differently. The freshman class we will have for the fall of ’09 will be the second biggest freshman class ever, second biggest to last year’s. But we learned something very valuable last year. We learned that when you have 4,500 freshmen, and a record number of transfers and a record number of distance education students, then you’d better be careful that you can serve them all. And we had some areas frankly where we were not serving those students well enough. They weren’t in the academic areas as much as in the student service area, certainly in financial aid.

We never want to lose that special spirit at ECU where students tell us day after day that when they come here they find something that’s very special. We don’t want to grow so fast that we lose that special feeling. Our door will stay open. Next year we will be over 28,000, which will be the biggest number of total students we’ve ever had. I don’t think we can possibly grow as fast as we have over the last three or four years or we will start to lose that ability to make a difference for students. I think we will see more and more students who may not come to us as freshmen but may come to us through the community colleges as sophomores and juniors.

Q: At the same time that East Carolina has been raising its admission standards, it also has gained recognition for academic initiatives and research. The amount of research dollars flowing into ECU is up significantly. Is it your goal for East Carolina to be recognized by the Carnegie Foundation as a research-intensive university, the same category as Carolina and State?

A: Those kinds of goals have never been my goals, and Vice Chancellor Mageean may shoot me when she reads this, because it’s her job to grow our profile and grow our status and grow our external dollars. And she could well achieve Carnegie research-intensive status [for ECU], but I don’t think that’s the most important thing for us to do.

If we get there because we’re doing other things right, that’s fine and we’ll all recognize that as just another recognition of what we’re doing. But I think it’s so much more important that we address the dental crisis in the rural areas in this state, and that’s not something the Carnegie Institution could ever factor into how they characterize institutions. Being successful in that kind of service in addressing one of the biggest needs in this state is 100 times more important than what Carnegie may or may not say about what category we’re in.

I would much rather be seen as having the best research capabilities in health disparities in the nation than I would to get to a certain level of the Carnegie. If we get to that level because we’re great in health disparities research, or heart disease research or metabolic research, I’m all for it but I don’t think it’s the first goal we set. I think the first goal is what research areas make the most difference for the things that we say are important to ECU.

Q: What type of working relationship have you developed with your trustees, with the UNC General Administration and other chancellors in the system?

A: I think I have a great relationship with [Board of Trustees] Chairman Bob Greczyn and Vice Chairman David Brody. I’ve really enjoyed over my five years great relationships with our board and that’s hard to do because there are so many tensions in a major public university and so many different ways of thinking about our future that there’s no one answer, and you’re always looking for a balance. [Last fall] we had some significant disagreements about how much of the rising cost of education our students should pay. And not every board member agreed with me on that but I think every board member agreed we had to find a compromise on that. I’m very happy with our compromise. Not everybody thought it was the right com­promise but we worked very hard to get there.

Q: If you’re still here five years from now how do you think East Carolina will be different than it is today?

A: Let me start by saying I hope to be here in five years. I think it’s the right place for me. My hope is that in five years or in the not too distant future that we’re essentially the same university in terms of our soul, of how we view ourselves as a service and regional transformation institution.

What I really hope is that we are recognized for a better model, a new model of public universities where all universities aren’t chasing the same kind of status, like Carnegie status or the top 10 in U.S. News & World Report, to get away from those kinds of generic models of what a university is and realize that every university has to have a distinctive contribution to the state we’re in, given who we are and what we do best. In five years I hope we are recognized as the best service university in the nation and I think we already are very close.

Q: How do you deal with stress from your job; what do you do to relax?

A: The best thing I do is recognize that you can’t be in this office every day. You have to get away from it sometimes. I usually get away with my family and my dogs and try to make sure that I don’t do this 24-7-364. I think that’s dysfunctional. This year we will have a big Ballard family reunion out in the West and that will be fun. Spring break we’ll get over to the coast and walk on the beach a few days. I’ve learned the hard way that you have to physically take yourself out because if I’m in this office or the residence, you don’t get away, your head is still in it every minute of every day.

Q: How many hours a week do you work?

A: I’ve never counted it because I thought I would be scared. You know, most days are 8 to 10 to 11 hour workdays and many weekends, especially this time of year, are filled with events and meetings and executive committee meetings of foundations, meeting people, having dinners with important politicians. I do try to take Sundays off, but I’m not always successful in that. That’s why getting away is so important, to remove yourself from the location in order to get your head clear sometimes.