Simic leaving big shoes to fill at IU: Foundation leader will serve as president emeritus and stay involved with school

Curt Simic has spent 31 years as a student and in various positions at Indiana University. That’s nearly half his life devoted to the Bloomington campus.

So it’s no surprise that Simic, 66, views his retirement as president of the IU Foundation-his most recent post and one he’s held the past 20 years-with mixed emotions.

While he’s looking forward to having time to go bike riding-as a student in the early 1960s, Simic competed in the school’s Little 500 Bicycle Race-he feels there is more he could have done at the foundation. The 200-employee notfor-profit raises gifts for IU and invests its endowment.

“When I close the book on June 30, I’m going to know that if we had been able to figure out how to do more, other things would have happened,” Simic said.

Peers and colleagues, though, say Simic has done more for the foundation than any previous president and likely more than any who will follow.

“I always thought that prior heads of the foundation were very effective in managing the foundation,” said Danny Danielson, vice chairman for locally based City Securities Corp. and a member of the foundation’s board the past 40 years. “But the record that Curt has compiled during his tenure has really set the bar and set standards that may never be equaled.”

Under Simic’s leadership, the IU endowment has swelled to $1.6 billion, from $189 million. It consistently ranks among the top 15 public universities based on the market value of its endowment.

“I doubt in the next 50 years if there’ll be a performance period that matches the time that Curt has been here,” said Kent Dove, senior vice president for development at the foundation. “It probably will stand as a historic time of achievement for a very long time.”

The foundation board is considering four finalists to succeed Simic. The new president could be named within weeks.

Keeping things personal

Those who know Simic say he’s been successful by keeping things personal. He’s nearly doubled the number of donors to more than 112,000, and he personally writes thank-you notes and makes phone calls letting donors know how much the foundation appreciates their gifts.

The foundation received more than $278 million from private donors in its most recent fiscal year.

Simic said he prepared himself to lead the IU Foundation by leaving it early in his career to learn about foundations at other schools.

After graduating from IU in 1964 with a bachelor’s degree in physical education, Simic spent seven years in various fundraising and programming positions at the IU Foundation. He knew then that he wanted someday to lead the foundation.

“When I left in 1971, it was my desire to come back,” Simic said. “I wanted to build a set of credentials that would make it possible for whoever was in charge to say, ‘Hey, we should take a look at this guy.'”

Each position taught him something he would bring back to IU, Simic said.

For example, as director of development at Yale University School of Medicine and Yale New Haven Medical Center, Simic learned the importance of understanding donors.

“People of wealth are besieged with opportunities to give,” Simic said. “You have to think about things from their per- spective. What inspires them and what makes a difference to them? Getting on their page is the thing you really have to work at.”

After a three-year stint at the University of Alabama, Simic wanted a completely different perspective. So he moved to the West Coast, where he spent five years each at the University of Oregon and University of California Berkeley Foundation.

“At Oregon and Berkley, I got my eyes opened to the world,” Simic said. “Institutions on the West Coast link to the Pacific Rim, but on the East Coast and in the Midwest, not so much.”

Specifically, Berkley opened his eyes to diversity.

“Caucasians were not the majority there,” Simic said. “That made me understand you have to look at the constituency of who you’re looking to for fund raising. When I came back to IU, I looked at the board members. It was basically a white, male board and I knew we had to get beyond that.”

Today, the 45-member board includes a dozen women. About a quarter of the board members are black.

Challenging start

Simic had his work cut out for him from the beginning. Within a year of taking the helm of the foundation in 1988, he had to deal with allegations of misuse of funds by one of his predecessors, Bill Armstrong. At the time, Simic blamed the secretive nature of the organization with having made matters seem worse than they were.

Under Simic’s leadership, the foundation has become more visible, transparency has improved, and staff is more accountable, Dove said.

Indeed, in the foundation’s most recent annual report, auditing firm Deloitte & Touche wrote that it holds the foundation up as a model of best practices.

Simic has no regrets about spending so much of his career at one university. He said he was recruited for other jobs but decided he’d rather stay.

“There are more good jobs out there than experienced people,” said Simic, who will remain involved with the foundation as president emeritus. “It’s not hard to move if you want to. So I thought about [leaving] and really did consider it. But in the long run, I’ve worked all my life to do this job, so why would I not stay? This is where I belong.”

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