Ball State University and Colleges and Universities and Education & Workforce Development

Gora seeking new ways to build Ball State's reputation

March 12, 2007

Ball State University President Jo Ann Gora keeps a schedule suited more to a political candidate than an academic.

Take her schedule for Jan. 25-26, when she motored from Muncie to Indianapolis to address a committee at the Indiana General Assembly, from which she wants $9 million in biennial operating cash.

Afterward, BSU's 14th president glad-handed with "friends of the university"--read potential donors--then headed down the street, to Ball State's downtown center. She worked the crowd at a reception before giving a speech to a group of architects.

Gora barely caught her breath before she hit the road that night for Gary, where the morning awaited breakfast with a state senator and an awards ceremony at one of the charter schools Ball State anointed. And that afternoon she swung into Reynolds, meeting with city officials and Ball State students working on energy-efficiency projects in this so-called "Bio-town USA." She ended the day with a speech to the university's international students.

"I love what I do and have always had a high energy level. Doesn't everybody work these hours?" said Gora, a 61-year-old who doesn't look a day over 45. Wearing a dark business suit and crowned with short blonde hair, she has the poise of a television news anchorwoman--but she's more than a talking head.

Entering her third year as Ball State's president, Gora has earned a reputation in business and political circles as a shrewd, aggressive ambassador for the 19,500-student university.

And by all measures, she's just gotten started. Last month, Gora began a 28-city "Education Redefined" tour to cities with a high concentration of alumni--read potential donors--including cities such as Cincinnati and Phoenix.

The Rolling Stones should be so busy.

Redefining image

For years, Ball State struggled for respect among the holy Hoosier triumvirate of Indiana University, the University of Notre Dame and Purdue University. Alumni of those schools--many of which have leadership positions in government and business--often looked condescendingly at Ball State as "Testicle Tech" or as merely a state teacher's college.

Gora will hear none of it, even in the presence of Gov. Mitch Daniels and his cronies. She made that clear during a 2005 trade mission to Asia as they boasted of Indiana's academic assets.

"She no longer wanted to hear, 'We have great universities--IU, Purdue and Notre Dame,'" said Melissa Proffitt-Reese, co-managing partner at Indianapolis law firm Ice Miller, who was part of the delegation.

Gora gently but firmly reminded state leaders that Ball State should be part of their academic vocabulary, Reese recalled of Gora, who is a former chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

"She brings a little bit of her East Coast impatience and a bias for action. These are the kinds of attributes you need to have when you're dealing with a bureaucracy," said state Budget Director Charles Schalliol. "She is very accessible and visible."

Gora is the polar opposite of what many IU faculty complained was the low-profile operating style of President Adam Herbert, who is stepping aside July 1 when Bloomington interim provost Michael McRobbie takes over as president. Some business leaders say Gora is shaping up to be a mini-version of Purdue's ambitious president.

"She certainly has worked hard at being visible around the state, similar to President [Martin] Jischke at Purdue," said Kevin Brinegar, president of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.

In this day and age of intense competition for students among colleges and the need to raise even more money, a president's role "is almost as much external as it is internal," Brinegar added.

Moreover, the General Assembly wants to see a return on investment in the form of jobs and other economic growth when it considers university funding requests.

Gerald Bepko, retired chancellor of IUPUI, frequently worked with Gora when she was at the University of Massachusetts. She wrote chapter two in the book "University Leadership in Urban School Renewal"; Bepko wrote chapter three.

Bepko said Gora believes universities are to be supportive of the economies and people of their regions. "She's just the right person for Ball State at this time."

Fast start

Gora generated good will immediately. She turned down the $150,000 spectacle of a traditional inauguration and instead put the money toward "inaugural scholarships" for 25 high school graduates.

One of her other early moves was to put more focus on the university's existing Building Better Communities program, which commits university resources to community projects in about 60 towns around the state.

Gora also has pushed faculty to more deeply involve students through "immersive learning," a concept that goes beyond the traditional internship. Instead, students from several disciplines are drawn together in a common project involving community partners.

In one such immersive learning project, students worked with Indianapolis International Airport operator BAA Indianapolis to create a computer clustering system that would allow the airport's network to function even after any part of it went down during an emergency.

"The students are responsible for developing the solution. The students aren't working for a grade--they're working for an impact," Gora said.

The benefit of drawing together students from different fields is that it generates teamwork skills they'll need after graduation. For example, one project involved landscape architecture students who set out to develop a DVD game to teach kids about the environment. The project required them to collaborate with graphic arts and biology students.

"We want to have a unique niche in higher education in Indiana," Gora said. "These students are all working on projects that will make a difference for the state of Indiana."

More than half the $9 million in funding Gora is seeking from the Legislature would go toward immersive learning, while the remaining $4 million would be to stoke entrepreneurism.

For example, she'd like to see Indiana become a bastion for filmmaking by cultivating emerging technology in areas such as Web casting. Ball State's Center for Media Design has been on the cutting edge of "Webisodes," which essentially are TV shows broadcast over the Web.

"I don't even know what a Webisode is," Gora confessed.

In 2005, one Ball State student won a Student Academy Award from the Association of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He beat competition from such accomplished film schools as New York University and UCLA--even though Ball State has no film school, per se.

"There is the potential to attract a whole new industry to Indiana," Gora said. "I believe it is my responsibility to push, prod, coax and encourage the university community to be more entrepreneurial," Gora said in 2005 in one of many letters to the editor she's written to newspapers statewide.

Meanwhile, Gora has been trying to get Ball State to help bolster existing industries here, such as insurance. The university's Indianapolis office, downtown, for five years involved in architecture and planning, also has launched a program to develop "high potential" insurance executives.

Gora also is looking to set up an outpost overseas, wanting to put a Ball State campus in Japan. She's proposed to a handful of state legislators a two-year degree program allowing Japanese students to begin their studies at the proposed campus and then transfer to the United States to complete their degrees. The Japanese campus could also provide professional development opportunities for Japanese executives as well as a place for Indiana students to study abroad.

"We did a lot of preliminary work on this idea. To go forward, all we need is funding," she said.

As for private contributions to Ball State, the number rose to $37.1 million last year from $11 million when Gora arrived. To what extent Gora's buttonholing should get credit is difficult to quantify.

One thing that is clear is that Gora has the confidence of Ball State's board of trustees.

"She has the complete support of the board," said President Tom DeWeese. "We feel we're unique and we wanted a president who would share that and who would have a vision for the university and find avenues we might take to a national prominence and be involved [more] statewide."

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