Susan Brooks seems to have returned to her roots in her new role with Ivy Tech Community College.
The former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Indiana began Oct. 1 leading the post-secondary educational institution's work force and economic development functions, as well as becoming its general counsel.
Brooks spent her growing-up years in Fort Wayne watching her father, a high school teacher and football coach, push his students and players on the football field and in the classroom.
"He took a lot of pride when any of his kids got football scholarships or when he simply talked them into going to college," Brooks recalled of her father.
"Occasionally, I watched when his kids got into trouble," she continued. "He would go to their aid, even go to court on their behalf."
And her family link to education doesn't stop with her father, who she says was influential in shaping her into who she is today. Her mother was a bookkeeper in the school system she grew up in. Her sister teaches there now. Several aunts and uncles have been teachers as well.
So it might have been all those years ago as she lived among educators that Brooks, 47, learned something about herself that would lead her on a path as a criminal defense attorney, deputy mayor of Indianapolis, U.S. attorney, and now part of the state's largest community college network.
"I love being a problem solver," she said. "I really enjoy helping others solve their problems."
She's got her work cut out for her at Ivy Tech, which is considered a crucial component in the state's ability to prepare people-young and old-for today's changing work-force needs amid a global economy.
In fact, her first task will be to expand Ivy Tech's relationships with employers across the state, Brooks said.
The goal of Ivy Tech, which has nearly 200 employees in work force and development positions, is to expand its corporate clients to 3,000, from the roughly 1,500 it has today. Ivy Tech trained more than 25,000 workers at those companies this past year. That number is expected to double, said Brooks, who began thinking this past summer about life after her U.S. attorney days.
"When you're in that kind of position, appointed by the president, you know you'll leave at some point," said Brooks, adding she sees Ivy Tech as a place from which she could retire.
The role as general counsel drew her to Ivy Tech, but her role as senior vice president of work force development is especially interesting to her.
As a criminal defense attorney for 16 years, Brooks had numerous opportunities to see how being ill-trained and uneducated can land a person in the prison system.
"The jails are filled with uneducated and underemployed people," she said. "Ivy Tech can help fix the criminal justice system through education and finding [people] better jobs. Typically, those in college or with good jobs aren't out committing crimes."
Brooks' lack of education industry experience doesn't worry her or her supporters, of whom there are many.
"Ivy Tech made an inspired choice in Susan," said Judge Sarah Evans Barker, who has known Brooks for many years. "They found a perfect way to capitalize on her many and broad-based skills."
One of Brooks' greatest assets that will aid Ivy Tech's mission of educating and helping find jobs for Hoosiers, is her Rolodex, Barker and others say.
"She's developed a very elaborate and impressive network of contacts around the city and state," said Mike Spears, chief of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department. "She knows people from all walks of life. With her network, she's uniquely prepared and ready to do all she can to help."
That network began forming at least as early as law school at Indiana University. It continued growing during her days as a criminal defense attorney where she gained friends not only among local and state government agencies, but neighborhood groups and community activists as well. She was named an "Influential Women of Indianapolis" in 1999 by Indianapolis Business Journal and also made IBJ's "40 Under 40" and Who's Who in Law lists.
As deputy mayor for the city of Indianapolis under then-Mayor Steve Goldsmith in the late 1990s, her network expanded even further. During that time, she also served on boards of Indianapolis Downtown Inc., Leadership Network Committee, IUPUI Board of Advisors, Clarian Health's Community Plunge Steering Committee, plus several criminal justice and social-welfare-related boards.
"She's able to blend well with all different types of groups and people," Spears said, recalling a situation where Brooks demonstrated her negotiating skills, something that'll come in handy in her new roles.
A police officer, responding to a call to a neighborhood near downtown, was fired at with an assault rifle. The officer had to return fire and killed the suspect, Spears said. "There was a lot of volatility in the neighborhood and a lot of unrest." Working with police and neighbors, by midnight Brooks had police, neighbors and pastors assembled at a church nearby, he said.
"She had the neighbors praying for the young man [who was] killed, but also for the police officer," Spears said. "What might have been a very difficult situation was resolved into one that was incredibly peaceful and calming for the neighborhood within a matter of hours."
But it's her six years as U.S. attorney that may have given Brooks the most farreaching contacts for Ivy Tech.
"She had oversight of 60 counties in the state," said Tom Snyder, Ivy Tech's president. "In that role, she had to understand just what are the macro economic drivers of our state. We felt we had to find the right mix of a person who knew the state of Indiana and who also knew its culture."
The school was looking for someone with fresh ideas, said Anne Shane, an Ivy Tech board member and vice president of BioCrossroads.
"For several years, Ivy Tech has been searching for the right group of people to take up the work-force development mission," Shane said. "At the end of the day, we decided we needed to find a very bright person, creative and with a history of getting things done. Ivy Tech needs to be more responsive to the needs of the state. And frankly, trying to find that stature and skill set in the existing pool has been difficult."
Polished, pragmatic and personable, Brooks is ready to lead that charge.
"Maybe it's time to do something new and different now," said Brooks, who spends much of her free time as a soccer mom.
So Brooks will do more than expand Ivy Tech's base of employers who need training for their workers.
"We need to promote our student population also," said Brooks, who appears as comfortable talking to students in Ivy Tech's culinary kitchen classrooms as she's said to be with judges and lawyers.
"If we get people excited about learning, they'll only want to learn more," Brooks said, referring to students who pursue certificates and associate's degrees and then go on to earn four-year degrees elsewhere.