Talking Higher Ed Challenges w/ Indiana State University President Deborah Curtis, PhD

The President of Indiana State University sits down with Higher Ed Athletics to discuss challenges facing higher education in the Midwest and how ISU is approaching them. President Curtis, a first generation college student, is the first female to serve the presidency at ISU and only the second alum.

HEA: President Curtis, thank you for having me here at Indiana State University. I really wanted to focus on some higher ed topics. So, there won’t be too much in this episode on athletics. I’d like to start by asking, what is the traditional pathway to a university presidency, if there is one? Are there new trends in the pathway to the president’s office?

CURTIS: Thanks for chatting with me about this today. I will tell you, first, to respond to what is the traditional path. For many years in higher ed, the traditional path has been through the inside of the institution. Sometimes it’s the path I took, which is faculty member to the dean to the provost to a president. Sometimes it’s coming up the administrative side, maybe you worked in studio affairs, to a vice president of an area to become a president. Occasionally, because we have examples of that, an athletic director has become a president. So that’s the in-house model. 

Do we see changes? There are examples of changes, and they’re not exactly new. I would say in the last 20 years, we’ve seen some efforts to perhaps recruit people out of business to come into these leadership roles. That comes with some challenges. And I only know this for sure, because of conversations I’ve had with leaders who have taken that path and then come in to a higher ed environment.

The culture and environment in higher ed is unlike any other. And because people have gone to school in college and earned degrees doesn’t necessarily give you the insight into what that leadership culture is like inside higher ed. So we do see some really successful examples of that. I mean, take this state, you know, Mitch Daniels is at Purdue as a president, came through the path of being a governor of the state, not an academic path to becoming that, and he’s doing very well at Purdue. But I… and I won’t mention names, but I’ve seen some CEOs out of business or industry come in and not recognize soon enough that the culture is different. And they try to function as if they’re running a business and sometimes crash and burn, it can be a challenge. I don’t think it’s anything that scares people away from that different model, though, there will be experimenting.

HEA: What are the factors an aspiring provost or president might need to consider when evaluating and applying to a university president job, I assume institution-type and current challenges the school is likely facing from maybe state legislature? What else?

CURTIS: Well, first and foremost, I think you need to be an observer of people already in the role. Certainly in my life as a faculty member, I was pretty distant from the president, but you could watch presidents and how they function. And I had the benefit of being at an institution as a faculty member for a long time. I was able to watch multiple presidents come in and out, but you’re pretty far removed. 

As I moved up to a dean and then eventually as a provost, where you’re second in command, you’re right next to that person, you learn a lot about what’s different about the role they serve. I will tell you a challenge coming up the academic side is you really have to be careful that you don’t try to be a president and still be the provost. And that’s tough, because the main reason students come to a university campus is for the educational, academic purposes. And when you become a president, you have to make sure that you’re allowing your provost to remain that chief academic officer. It doesn’t mean your world never crosses into it. But I’ll tell you the things I observed that I knew would be different for me is certainly an expectation that you do fundraising for an institution, not many provosts do that. I did as a dean, but in the academic world it’s usually the deans doing that work. As a president, of course, you’re fundraising for the entire university. So that’s key.

Another thing I observed as I was contemplating becoming a president is that interaction with town and gown and that you really must work with your peer leaders in the community. You know, I keep describing this institution, it’s been here for 150 years, the city precedes that, but [the city and university] are going to still be here 150 years from now. So my time in this role, how do we move forward our relationship, that’s a different role than a provost or an academic tends to have. 

Certainly being the number one communicator for the campus is also an important piece. If you don’t like verbalizing to all kinds of audiences, the mission and the purpose and the successes and challenges of your institution, it’s probably not a good role to aspire to. There are people who like to stay in their environment and just work in that environment. There’s a whole lot of external communication that’s really required. So I think that’s something to think about as well.

HEA: So for you, what made that switch to you wanting to become a university president? Did you expect that when you were in the provost role, or faculty role?

CURTIS: So, definitely never anticipated that as a faculty member. As a provost, pretty determined I would not because of how much I liked being a provost. I’ve always valued the experiences I had in the academic side of higher ed. I’ll tell you what caused the difference, because I didn’t anticipate is that it was this particular institution. I earned my PhD at Indiana State, and immediately my mind went to who gets to do that, go back to the place that gave them their foundation in a 30-year career and be able to serve that institution? So I know I would not have pursued being a president at any other institution, I would have finished as a provost.

HEA: Yeah, that is really unique. I think I read you’re only the second president of Indiana State that’s an alum and I think that’s amazing.

CURTIS: And the first one was 100 years ago.

HEA: And you’re the second female president?

CURTIS: First.

HEA: First? Oh, wow. So, how are we doing in American higher ed as far as female president opportunities?

CURTIS: Well, with a 30-year look at this in my career, I’ve been privileged to be front and center watching this happen. It’s really been a career thrill for me to watch that level and be a part of it. I had a colleague in Florida who was retiring out of a role as president there, but had about a 25-year career in higher ed, who said, “You know what, when I first came into this, aspiring to be a president, there were only about 10% of women who were chief executive officers of the university,” she said, “Now as I retire out, we’re getting up to about a third, that’s pretty good progress.” That is pretty good progress. 

We’ve got a long ways to go. Because as you look at student enrollment, for example, in higher ed, the average nationally is higher female than male. So you would like to think that the CEO role would go there, but we’re on our way. I’m thrilled to share with young women who are pursuing these types of careers and aspiring to these types of roles that your path is much clearer than many people had in moving into these relationships. So are we there yet? Not yet. But really good progress, really good progress.

HEA: That’s good to hear. You talked a little just now about enrollment. I’ve continually read and heard that high school graduates pursuing college is dipping in the Midwest. Do you know why that’s happening? Is it a simple reason? And how does that impact either directly or indirectly, the future of public regional institutions like Indiana State?

CURTIS: So, one key piece for the Midwest is just simply a decline in birth rates. Not that it’s not growing, it’s growing at a slower rate. So that’s going to impact just who lives in the Midwest being fewer of those folks graduate for 17-, 18-year-olds from high school. You’re always going to have an exodus of some students who want to go out of the Midwest to go to college anyway, but we’ve always had that. So for those institutions predominantly serving the Midwest and tend to have a background of recruiting students from the Midwest, that’s a challenge. So it really means turning your focus on how and who you recruit into the offerings you have at your institution.

HEA: And going into part of that, I mean, it could be reaching other pockets of students. So online education, Indiana State has been growing online. But do you think online education will eventually dry up as kind of a recruiting tool in the Midwest if this shift continues of trying to find a new resource to get more students?

CURTIS: A couple pieces building to a response to that. Number one is I don’t anticipate it anywhere in the near or distant future drying up. Because now we have generations of learners who don’t remember ever having a time where they didn’t have a device in their hand. Those generations are beyond the level that we’re talking about being interested in earning a college degree. So, I personally think there’s going to be more and more need for that type of learning. 

The other part of that is, a lot of institutions like Indiana State have focused quite centrally on recruiting 17-, 18-year-olds who come to a campus and live in a dorm. And that isn’t going to be the model in the near future. This state has a goal to increase post-secondary degree attainment, whether that’s an associate’s degree or bachelor or whatever by 2025. There are many students out there and we refer to them as people with some college and no degree. And there are about 700,000 of those Hoosiers in the state, who have some college credits and no degree, to be able to reach out to them and serve them, they’re not going to come and live in a dorm in Terre Haute, Indiana, for the most part. There might be some whose life would permit that. But these are students expecting a different learning experience.

You know, there’s a lot that goes on on a college campus in a residential environment that’s about social development as well as academic development. And frankly, some of these people are talking about, they don’t need the social development part. They really need the academic credentials and the knowledge that comes with that. So it’s a very different style of offering those opportunities to Hoosiers around the state. And it’s not just one. It isn’t that we’re never going to recruit a 17 or 18 year old again, it’s a mixture is what it is. It’s almost like an investment portfolio, you diversify. And you’re investing in what we’re here to do, which is provide educated citizens to the State of Indiana. But how do you do that? It isn’t just 17 and 18, or 19-year-olds coming through the door to live here. But it’s also serving some of those folks with some college and no degree.

Or one of my favorite examples is let’s say it’s someone who earned a computer science degree from us 8 years ago, 10 years ago, an employer saying not, “you need a master’s degree,” saying, “You need to go back and get some cyber security; your work really needs that.” So maybe it’s not a degree we need to be offering, maybe it’s a certificate of 15 or 18 hours at the graduate level. So they can go back to their employer and say, “Okay, I’ve gotten that foundation. Now I can move forward in my career,” or those underemployed folks. 

Another example I love to give is the community college system here is working. And one example I heard is in a women’s prison, with preparing some of those folks to come out and weld, a real high-need field, not just in the state, you know, in this whole Midwest area, real high need. That’s a much better preparation for leaving prison than asking everybody, “Do you want fries with that?” That’s a pretty good strong career start. But it might not be forever for that person. That person may come out and weld for a few years and see that foreman on the floor saying, “I could do that. What’s my next credential I need to do that?” You’re a foreman for future say, “Those people up in the C-suite, I could do that. What do I need?” So being able to interject what the learner needs at the time they need it in the way they need it to be able to keep growing in their career aspirations. That to me is the future look of what online learning can provide for the state.

HEA: The point about the graduate certificates is something I paid a lot of attention to at my institution/employer. We offer quite a bit of the graduate certificates. And someone like myself, I’ve always worked in athletics but I’ve wanted to get into a degree that’s more about higher ed. So that’s something where, you know, I might do a grad certificate in data analytics, and then eventually try and start my PhD around that. And so, trying to build that skill set for someone trying to do a complete industry change, because people change, I mean, interest change, whenever… you talked about not wanting to… not knowing that you want to be a president as faculty, I would have never thought 10 years ago I’d be interested in this type of stuff instead of, you know, what I thought I was interested in. So I think that’s a great point that it could be a way to kind of be another onboarding to a different career.

CURTIS: Absolutely. And you yourself probably are not going to say, “So I’ll quit everything I do. And I’ll come live in an apartment in Terre Haute and I’ll do that graduate program.” Life happens to people. And if that’s what we’re expecting, it’s not going to happen. So the point is to turn around and offer that opportunity to earn those, and that those credentials are stackable, which is what you’re talking about. 

That example I gave, cyber security, so let’s say it’s 15, 16, 18 hours of cyber security. If we carefully designed those, we can say to you, “There you go. There’s your credential. By the way, guess what, you’re halfway to a master’s degree. Here’s what it would take. And here’s what that path would look like. And you’ve got a master’s degree in XYZ.” I call it lighting the runway, lighting the runway so you can see here’s what that looks like, and you can move along that runway when it’s right for you. And our obligation is to make sure that those offerings are offered in a way that works for you.

HEA: I’d like to talk about your leadership style towards overseeing a Division I athletic department. Specifically, how involved should a president be with athletics on their campus, and then maybe as NCAA overall? Because presidents are the big decision makers in intercollegiate athletics, they’re the people that are really driving the conversation, behind the scenes, really, of widespread college athletics issues.

CURTIS: So I’ll start with the very beginning of style and say, there is no campus in this country that the buck doesn’t stop at the president’s desk. And we’ve seen that in some pretty unpleasant situations where in a large university environment and athletics is part of that, something can happen very down in there that anybody on the street would realize a president might not know about, but they’re responsible. They’re absolutely responsible. So to me, that goes to the leadership style of, no, I can’t know everything every day in every corner of this campus that’s going on, but I do need to create the kind of leadership environment where there’s regular communication. And I’m going to add to that, regular appreciation of one another’s role, what they contribute to the mission of the institution. And then for me, as a leader, I’ve always been this way. And let’s go to my athletic director, how do I facilitate his ability to do his job, because there’s that accountability, it’s going to end at my doorstep if we misstep or whatever. And certainly, the NCAA is very clear what its expectations are. My role and responsibility is to make sure I have brought the right people into those roles to manage those responsible and then engage in communication all the time.

Now, for me, particularly, I was a coach, a high school coach in softball and volleyball. I married a man I met at a coaches’ meeting 40 some years ago, who was a coach as well. So it’s always been a part of our lives. My husband was a superintendent of schools until he retired. And I’ve certainly been in education moving through those roles. So we’re educators with a very clear valuing and foundation in athletics. So that’s a natural for me to come in and say, one of the first people I want to talk to is my athletic director. 

I can tell you I’m also blessed because I have a really fine AD to work with. If I were to go out when I came here and hire someone, Sherard Clinkscales is the AD I would have been looking for. So we’ve been able, from the very beginning, to establish a relationship where we understand one another, we communicate as much as we possibly can. But whether it’s the AD, or the provost, or the vice president for finance, they need to be able to do their jobs. I expect in my style, regular communication so we know how each other thinks. But at the end of the day, they need to be able to do their jobs. And I need to see that in them that they have this vision for their division of the university, and that I’m mainly there to not only hear from them but support them.  Still, all of us know at the end of the day, the buck stops here.

HEA: I was watching your fall address from fall 2018 on YouTube and you mentioned degree success with the performance funding for the state…how does that program work in Indiana?

CURTIS: So every state handles performance funding differently. For example, Tennessee, all of the funding the University gets is based upon performance spending. So I’ve been in Illinois, been in Missouri. I’ve been in Indiana, and each one is a little bit different. The model in Indiana is off the approved budget for all of us in the public environment, a piece is taken off and held is that pool for performance funding. Then, you get whatever piece of that back based upon how well you perform. So of course, the goal is always at least make back what we put in, but really it’d be nice to get more back than you put in. I’m thrilled to say in this last budget cycle, we hit all of ours, so this was the first time for this institution since that model has been out there. We got back what we put in as well as a little bit more. So that’s pretty exciting. It’s number one and first and foremost, successful students. That’s what we want. Not a chance to earn a degree, but earning a degree. That’s the goal. That’s student success. Number two, that it creates the revenue stream that it should, meaning, capture, at least, back what you put in and preferably some more.

HEA: How does the university track retention? Because what I’ve looked at is it seemed it’s a lot of from year one to year two, but is there a semesterly metric? How do you track retention so that you can actually get very detailed?

CURTIS: Well, I’m going to even back up a little earlier about the retention piece, because we do… particularly that first year is crucial. So we do track semester to semester that first year, and then first year to second year that they re-enroll. But we’re now focusing as well on how well are we retaining after that sophomore to junior, junior to senior, and of course, the efficiency of the credit hours you’re taking leading you to that degree. 

But let me back up a little bit and say, a key piece in this too is who we invite in the door. We’ve begun to be in higher ed so much more sophisticated in our ability to use predictive analytics to take a look at variables beyond your GPA and your SAT or ACT score. We can really look at other factors in there now. And for this institution, it’s key. Socioeconomic status has a big impact. I am a first-generation college graduate in my family. Of course, you can tell it wasn’t just a few years ago, and we didn’t have the support systems then for first generation college goers. I just felt fortunate that I happen to be with friends who weren’t, who’d say, “Oh, well, you do this next. And you do that next.” But now we’re built to be able to help students. We’re 50% first-generation college goers on this campus.

We’re 55% low income students, that also brings challenge to the retention piece. So we can build in some of those factors into our predictive analytics. And here’s how that works. Let me give a simple example. We take the data on the successful students at this university for the last 10 years, meaning, those who graduated, whether it’s undergrad, graduate, those students who graduate, let’s study them, let’s see what variables impacted their ability to complete. And we can get pretty granular in this that helps us make an admissions decision. It isn’t perfect. You know, are you going to miss somebody maybe by admitting someone? You might. But is it better to not admit a couple who might have been successful than to admit a whole bunch who you’d pretty much could tell aren’t going to be successful? And what comes into that? Students who apply late tend to, in our data, suggest they don’t persist as well. So it could be a point in their lives. You know, “I’m just not a good planner at this point” means for us, they tend to translate into students who don’t plan once they’re here. So there are all kinds of variables we can add to that. 

And we’re engaging that right now to say, we can be more sophisticated in who we admit and bring with a likely or greater percentage of those people persisting through to earning a degree, whether it’s four, or five or six years. I like to push back a little on that too, because everybody looks at a four-year completion rate. But times are not the way they were when I went to undergrad. You move through undergrad like you did high school, your freshman and that’s 30 hours. Your sophomore that’s 60. Our population, that population I described, many of them work. Sometimes they have family commitments that people in my generation would have had, you know, where they, they work outside of school, not just to pay their bill, but to help their family. 

There are all kinds of factors that impact a person’s ability to complete in four years, none the least of which first-generation students are not nearly as sophisticated about what the array of possibilities are for majors. They think of the traditional ones. They know about in the common public. My usual favorite one when I was a provost was safety sciences. My last institution had a program and this one does. Most first-generation college goers don’t even know what that is. And then they get in and they’ll take a foundational course and they go, “I love this. That’s a thing, right? That’s a thing? That’s a major here?” So that causes some transition, what we want them to do is graduate with something they have a passion for. You know, the further you go in accumulating 30, then 60 then 90. If I get off of this, it’s another 60 or whatever, so, you really want to interject at those crucial points, which are really the first three semesters of a student’s college career to make sure they’re on the right path. So those are strategies as well that impact whether someone is going to be able to stand. We also know the longer it takes a student to complete, the less likely they are to complete.

HEA: And the more debt they might accumulate, if it takes longer.

CURTIS: Absolutely, especially, you know, what I keep saying here is my worst nightmare is that we invite a freshman in who doesn’t even make it past the first semester because their problem wasn’t academics, it might have been, I can’t afford this. And we didn’t give them a clear picture enough in the fall. And then they leave with a one semester of credits, but maybe $4,000 bill, and for a low-income family it might as well be $40,000. That’s a huge anchor around your neck when you don’t have the credentials to go out and get a job that can pay that off. So those are the pieces that build into how successful we’re going to be not only in retaining but persisting and driving that person to, “I’m walking out of here with a degree.” My two favorite days of the year, December commencement, May commencement. Everybody crossing the stage, accomplished what they came here to do. It’s a thrill. See, I’m getting chills telling you about it. It’s a thrill for me all these years every one of those days.

HEA: I do like to end it allowing the person I interview to give a shout out to maybe a mentor that’s either helped you in your career, or personal life, that maybe has helped you get here where you’re at now.

CURTIS: None of us get to these points in a career without those significant people. And I will tell you, when I took this position, there were a few people I just simply sat down and hand wrote a note to because they were those people along the way. And I think this is pretty much a phenomenon for first-generation students. I use the phrase a lot, “Those people who believed in me before I believed in myself,” and a reporter once said, “What’s that mean?” I said, “You didn’t see your own potential because you didn’t have a vision for where it could take you, but others did and encouraged you.” And I’ve got a handful those. The most recent being the president I worked for before I came here when I was a provost. His name is Chuck Ambrose, and he’s the president and CEO of KnowledgeWorks now in Cincinnati, but an incredibly dynamic leader and very different style than mine but so compatible. I mean, you know, we were just kind of like A and B together in it and I think that resulted in a great product for the university. But for him in that role, not only to be who he was as such a strong leader, but to recognize my different strengths and support them, very, very crucial leader for me.

I’ll go back to before I became a dean, was the dean I was working for, as a director of the Teacher Education Center at Illinois State, Diane Ashby. Brilliant leader, I learned so much from her. But the one is she turned the reins over to me as she went off to become a vice president saying, “You’re going to be a better dean than I was.” And of course, I’m going, “There’s no way. There is no way.” But someone who sees that in you like that, who moves you forward and says, “Oh, yeah, you can do this. And you’re going to do this.” So those are huge pillars in my career as I take a look back.

And I’m going to go one further way, way back, which is before I ever thought I’d be a college student was a teacher I had in high school. His name is John Vanhook, and he is a music teacher. But he was a person who pushed me towards leadership roles. And, as a matter of fact, me along with other students in high school, he took us to visit the college I eventually went to, which was MacMurray College, because he was that committed to these young people to say, “Look, this could be you, you could do this.” Those are those believed in you before you really have that commitment and vision for yourself. Those are three really key people for me.

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