Two Days, Two Presidents

On two separate days, I shadowed two college presidents at Indiana State University. One impressed me tremendously, mostly by not caring one bit what I thought about him. The other one ended up not impressing me at all, for all the worst reasons.

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Prologue:  The words below were originally written in early March of 2020.  Back then, my alma-mater, Indiana State University, had just released their hideous new athletic logo with great fanfare.  For me, it seemed yet another example of a university administration that had turned a deaf ear to average alumni and supporters.  My other example of this problem was a lot more personal, however.

Three years earlier, I worked an assignment for STATE Magazine covering the newly hired president, Deborah Curtis.  The short version of that story is this: I wrote an honest depiction of her going about one of her first days on the job.  She didn’t like it, and she buried it.  Whatever.  Fine.  That happens.  If she would have reached out to me, walked me through her grievances, and told me why she couldn’t endorse my profile, things would have been different.  I would still be salty, sure.  But there’s something about a candid face-to-face moment that leads to legitimate closure, respect even.  Instead, she passed the matter off to a handler, who passed that to another handler, who passed that off to my editor.  Okay.  Chain of command.  I get it.  But it’s Terre Haute, not Washington, D.C.

When I found out, first hand, the lengths she would go to control the narrative, I became conditioned to look at every campus controversy though the lens of the President’s office.  What was her role in this?  I would ask myself.  The answer is always ambiguous.   Curtis is a master at taking center stage when the news is good and being nowhere in sight when it’s not. 

On the day I was ready to publish this, the pandemic finally arrived.  My work had just shut down and many of my friends in the service sector were being laid off.  In that light, ranting about a logo  seemed woefully tone deaf.  So I shelved it.  When another day arrived, as I knew it would, I’d raise my points then.

Now, about 368 days later, that day is here. Watching the Greg Lansing drama unfold, my thoughts are returning to the school’s president.  To her management style.  To her narcissism and her insecurity.  I’ve never met Lansing, so I don’t know if he’s a swell guy or an asshole.  I’ve heard both, but so what?  I’ve heard both about me, too [insert shoulder shrug].  I don’t need to write a defense of Lansing, given that both Gregg Doyel and Todd Golden have done that quite well.

But any university’s public display of dysfunction is ultimately a reflection of its leader.  Here is my experience with her.  Maybe I’m an anomaly.  Maybe (to paraphrase her words about me) I totally got her wrong, and the problem in my story is me.  That wouldn’t be a first.  But something tells me, I’m not the lone member of the “Not Impressed Club” when it comes to the Sycamore president’s leadership style.

Thus, in my opinion, ISU’s current “time for a change” drama is a half-correct story.  It’s definitely time for a change in Terre Haute, but it’s not the basketball coach who needs to go.

March 6, 2020:

Loyal Indiana State University alums are Sisyphean figures.  Tragic protagonists stuck in a redundant saga, painfully rolling our boulders up the slope.  Occasionally, the ’79 boulder gets near the top, or ’86 stone rolls into the College World Series.  Most of the time, however, that great rock rolls back on top of us, down to the bottom.  We sigh.  We stare at the sky for a moment, maybe shake our fist a bit.  Then we plod down to the base of the slope, put our hands on the boulder, and we shoulder it back up the hillside.

In early March, with… let’s say… “moderate” celebration, my alma-mater publicly revealed its new athletic logo.  If you haven’t had the chance to see Indiana State University’s new design, I’ll spare you the hassle of looking it up and tell you right now that it’s bad.  In fact, it’s that special kind of bad that only seems to happen to us Sycamores. 

Social media blew up over it. Rather quickly, in fact, and rightfully so.  My favorite post was the mock-up meme showing Sycamore Sam (our school’s own fuzzy blue varmint that’s part squirrel, part ferret, part racoon, part lemur), wearing the logo as a pair of boots.  Hats also go off to whomever shared the meme presenting a bunch of preschoolers at the Crayon table as “The Graphics Design Team.”

Ignoring for a half-second that this is Indiana State University we’re talking about, all I can do is scratch my head when I try to figure out exactly what all those thousands of dollars (but probably more) bought.  Who signs off on this?  How does this happen?  A lot of folks blamed Under Armor (which is probably warranted).  Still more turned their ire to Athletic Director Sherard Clinkscales (which is also fair).  I, however, turned my attention to the white-haired woman on the stage.

My "mug" shot from the morning I sat in on Curtis' first meeting with her primary advisory council. January 16, 2018.

I shadowed President Deborah Curtis early in her tenure, on something like her first… or third… or fifth day on the job.  I spent most of the day with her, sitting in her office as she acclimated herself to her digs.  I followed her across campus as she met with students in the commons.  I squatted on my haunches in a sound booth as she gave an interview to the school’s public radio affiliate.  And I had lunch with her as she spent 74 minutes talking about her biography, her philosophy, and her world view.

She wasn’t the only ISU president I spent a day with.  Seven months earlier, I sat the same office watching Daniel Bradley go through his routine on a bright June day in 2017.  Actually, the sun was more than “bright” that day, it was brilliant, euphoric even.  I remember staring out the windows often noticing the fluorescent green corona marking the edges of the leaves on the other side of the glass.  When I occasionally stepped outside, I turned my face upward and let the air envelope me.  It was a perfect symbiosis of man and environment.

The following January while Curtis spent her first (…or third …or fifth) day holding court over her advisory council, sub-freezing winds buffeted those now leafless branches, and spittles of snow rocketed sideways past the panes.  On the two occasions when we walked outdoors, I wrapped my coat collar around my jaw, sunk my head beneath the buttons, and wished myself anywhere…anywhere other than there.

Two different presidents. Two different days.  Even [three] years later, the Dickensian symbolism still resonates with me.

Where Bradley went about his day to the quiet ticking of the clock in the office, Curtis spoke as if every syllable was choreographed to a booming John Williams soundtrack in the background.

A freelance writer for ISU’s STATE Magazine at the time, I had been tasked with an unconventional assignment.  Follow each leader by their coattails, observe all that goes on, and tell the story of the day.  Describe them as they were.

There were caveats, of course.  STATE was a university publication, and some degree of ass-kissing was woven into the job.  I was fine with it, however…and my editors were as well.  For the chance to publish something other than another lame, glowing “look how awesome we all are” piece…? For the opportunity to write something that didn’t read like a “safe” article in the local newspaper…?  We were all up for that.

Seeking inspiration and guidance I turned to the work of one of my friends.  For more than 20 years Esquire Magazine’s Tom Chiarella has galivanted around the country (sometimes the globe) chasing down big names for his own profiles.  Even though his Tom Brady experience was flat-out horrible1, the feature he wrote was brilliant, and it’s still my favorite Chiarella interview.  So, before I headed to Terre Haute, I read several of Tom’s pieces.  Then again, before my second trip back to the “high ground,” I read yet more of them. 

                        1—To this day, Chiarella has little good to say of Brady.

I thought of Tom and his work all the time when I wrote about that day with Bradley2.  Yes, mine is still a university piece, but I stand by its merit as an honest description of the day.  In fact, the only “dicey” part I had to remove was a quote describing him as a “micromanager.”  It’s true, by the way. He very much was a micromanager.  It’s also true that his tendency to obsess over small details annoyed and angered a lot of department chairs and professors …along with the occasional vice-president or two.  Whatever.  The man got results.  When, by all accounts, ISU’s enrollment should have slipped into the abyss, he shot it up to record highs.

2—I would provide a link to that piece, but ISU has apparently shut down that arm of its website.

The thing I remember most about my day with Bradley is that he worked like a “nuts and bolts” guy.  He answered emails, he went through the necessary rigamarole with visiting dignitaries, and he kept every meeting as short as possible.  He could make small talk. He just didn’t particularly want to.  He wasn’t gruff or rude about it.  He humored you when you brought up one of your favorite professors or what you were doing in the winter of ’793.  But Bradley also became gregarious if you asked him about his children and grandchildren.  Whether he gave you a polite, but mildly dismissive, nod or a vigorous handshake and a warm smile, none of it struck me as inauthentic.  Like I said, not everyone liked him.  That comes with the job. But everyone got the real him.

3—Mention “79” around any of us with an ISU pedigree, and we sprout a boner—even those of us who think Larry Bird is an asshole.

Deborah Curtis, on the other hand, was everything Dan Bradley was not.  To be fair, I didn’t dislike Curtis when I spent the day with her.  She was different than Bradley, but so what?  I pretty much expected that. Consequently, I thought her assertive sort of laughter was sincere.  I assumed her effusive voice, her flagrant hand-gesturing, and her booming volume were all a genuine reflection of someone who really loved the personal interaction that comes with the job.  I would love to tell you that something didn’t seem right about her.  That I somehow knew she wasn’t all that she made herself out to be, that she would sell ISU over the edge of the cliff if it meant making her look amazing the process.

I didn’t see any of that, of course.  Save for one rather odd moment4 during my lunchtime interview with her, nothing “pinged” on my sonar.

4—It’s probably best that I not go into detail about the comment she made during that lunchtime conversation.  

It's definitely time for a change in Terre Haute, but it's not the basketball coach who needs to go.

Of all the moments I replay in my head when I think of those two days, one image I remember most happened when Bradley encountered some students on the way to an important meeting to talk about tuition rates.  He looked at the pair of passing young people and said “hello,” with all the enthusiasm of a retiree walking his dog.  It wasn’t dismissive.  It was just him.  I can’t help but compare that with Curtis who shook everyone’s hand as if she were Jack Nicholson portraying the Joker5.

5—“Whooo-hooo… It’s going to be hot time in old town tonight…”

Where Bradley was hyper-detail oriented, Curtis spoke in broad strokes.  Where Bradley went about his day to the quiet ticking of the clock in the office, Curtis spoke as if every syllable was choreographed to a booming John Williams soundtrack in the background.  Where Bradley was perfectly fine pissing you off, Curtis wanted you to worship her.  Where Bradley only cared about results, Curtis obsessed over perception.

I couldn’t tell you whether Bradley liked my piece on him or not.  I’m fine with that.  If he hated it, I imagine he read it, shrugged his shoulders, went on with day.  If he loved it, I’m betting he read it, shrugged his shoulders, and went on with his day.

I do know for a fact that Curtis hated my piece on her6.  I would share it with you, if I could.  That one, however, never made it to STATE’s web site.  And since it’s now the property of the university by contract, I can’t share my copy of it, either. 

6—I opened the piece with a melodramatic depiction of Daniel Bradley’s shadow looming in the room during her first (…or third …or fifth) day.  So yeah… dumb move on my part.

I still don’t know the exact reason why Curtis scrapped the whole day.  I do know that STATE eventually published a very safe, very vanilla interview, one written by her “Chief of Staff.”7  President Bradley got a mention in the piece.  She thanked him for “for everything [he] did to strengthen this institution and this community.”  Then she declared it was up to her to “pump up the volume…”  Whatever the hell that means.

7—I didn’t realize ISU needed a Chief of Staff, but…okay.

President Bradley's agenda from the day I shadowed him. I didn't get that visit to the Condit House. But I did spend the day with someone who didn't bullshit me, so there's that. June 7, 2017.

And now we have a new logo.  To the casual schmoe, all this anger over an ugly splotch of blue, white, and gray is kind of silly.  But it’s not the logo that has me upset.  The logo is just the hideous goiter on the skin, a festering wound desperately needing a Band-Aid.  What really sets me off of is tumor growing underneath.  A Keystone-Cops-shaped mass of incompetence and insecurity.

Despite the outcry, it looks like that hideous logo is here to stay.  The leaders have exerted their will, and they are writing the narrative that they want the rest of us to adhere to.  There’s nothing else for this Sycamore to do, except that thing all good Sycamores do.  Thus, do I put my hands on the boulder before me and begin rolling it up the slope.

Epilogue: When I wrote this last year, I discussed my draft with my former editor–who left ISU, citing Curtis’ leadership style as reason number one.  Recently ISU’s provost, Mike Licari, left Terre Haute for the top job at Austin Peay.  That was inevitable, regardless who the Sycamore trustees had chosen over him. 

But right now, amidst declining enrollments, increased turnover, and a global pandemic ISU should be circling some wagons.  Instead the school has let go of a coach who consistently made a school with a mostly woeful history competitive.  Terre Haute is a hard place to recruit.  ISU is a hard place to win.  And that’s during the good times, when the people running the university know what they are doing and go about their day comfortable in their own skin.

Author: Donovan Wheeler

Wheeler proudly teaches English to a horde of bright and lovably obnoxious high school seniors in a small college town. He has written in the past for Indiana on Tap and STATE Magazine, and is an occasional contributor to NUVO, Indy's alternate news website. Since picking up the guitar three years, he can now play a dozens songs while singing them quite badly.

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