Steve Ballard’s Era
Twelve years of leadership and service
Steve Ballard made a bold prediction in his March 2005 installation speech after being named East Carolina University’s tenth chancellor the previous year.
“In 2015, ECU will be recognized as ‘the leadership university,’ where each member of our community is empowered to achieve his or her aspirations,” he said at the time.
“It is safe to say this goal you set in 2005 has been reached,” says Kimrey Miko of the ECU Staff Senate at a reception earlier this year honoring Ballard.
“Kimrey, I can’t believe you actually went back and looked at promises I made. Don’t anybody else do that,” jokes Ballard, who will step down as chancellor July 1. “You found one I delivered a little bit on.”
Beneath his trademark humor and modesty, Ballard has delivered more than a little on this goal and others-namely, making ECU a national leader by focusing on student success, public service and regional transformation.
“It doesn’t seem possible it has been 12 years,” Ballard says as he reflects on his time in Greenville. “I think it has gone quickly because ECU has been such a good fit for me. We’ve gone from a university that there were some questions about to a major public university. And I don’t take credit for that, I give hundreds of people credit for that.”
Ballard, the longest-serving chancellor in the University of North Carolina system, has seen four UNC presidents. He’s presided over a growing student body, budget cuts and academic reorganization, the establishment of the Honors College and the School of Dental Medicine, financial challenges to the Brody School of Medicine, moving to the American Athletic Conference and expanding community partnerships.
“My whole professional career has been devoted to the difference that public universities can make for our society,” he says. “Finding a place like ECU that was already committed to that made the work a lot easier.”
Ballard had to get right to work when he started his job in May 2004. ECU was in a period of rapid leadership turnover; Ballard was the fourth person in three years to lead the university in either a permanent or interim role.
“But larger than that, in the system, ECU was not getting as much respect as many people here felt it should get,” Ballard says. “In a way, that’s a great time to enter a university, when everything seems to be down.”
As he began his job as chancellor, Ballard felt ECU had a solid foundation built on service, spirit, leadership and character.
It was this foundation that drew him and his wife, Nancy, to East Carolina. Both had experience that aligned with ECU’s commitment to serving the region, particularly through the Brody School of Medicine.
“When he was looking at all the materials in the interview process, I was looking at them, too,” says Nancy Ballard, who left a career in health communication to support her husband as chancellor. “I knew he believed in what this university stands for. He didn’t have to convince me. To be part of the growth of this community is more gratifying than I could ever explain.”
Leadership and service
Chancellor Steve Ballard’s well-known passion for mentoring students, particularly student leaders, has helped them become successful leaders after they graduate.
“It’s rare to encounter a leader that treats you as a peer,” says Justin Davis ’15, who served as ECU student body president in 2012, and as such was an ex officio member of the Board of Trustees.
“Serving on the board can be daunting for a 20-year-old,” Davis says. “Chancellor Ballard really listened to us. That does something for your confidence and professional development. I learned as much on the board as I did in class. His character and commitment made us who we are as people today.”
Davis is now the director of business development for a local catering company. His predecessor, Drew Griffin ’08, recently founded a consulting firm in Washington, D.C., and serves as its vice president.
“The environment Chancellor Ballard created at ECU allowed us to learn about leadership and entrepreneurship,” Griffin says. “He set an example. He was so poised under pressure. We got to see that up close. That’s definitely something I took away from ECU.”
Griffin, Davis and several other past presidents, who have kept in touch over the years, decided they wanted to share these sentiments with Ballard before he stepped down. They quietly worked with Nancy Ballard to host a surprise home-cooked dinner for him at the chancellor’s residence in March.
“We wanted to do something in an intimate setting and honor him in a personal manner,” says Griffin, who coordinated the event. “We wanted him to hear how much we appreciated him in a way that he could relax and soak it all in. It was nice to put life to the words we’ve been feeling all these years.””His impact has been felt not only through the university but through this whole area,” adds Davis.
Molly Broad, president of the UNC system from 1997 to 2006, hired Ballard for his experience in running complex public universities with medical schools and his enthusiasm for finding opportunities to serve the community. She called him “a superb leader.”
“Steve has had a profound impact on ECU and has renewed the institution’s focus on community engagement and economic impact for eastern North Carolina,” says Broad, now president of the American Council on Education.
Ballard has been honing his ideas on leadership for decades. As shortstop and captain of the University of Arizona baseball team, he learned the importance of cohesiveness and commitment to any organization-sports team or otherwise. That’s the essence of his leadership style, and he used it to build what’s become a strong team of administrators.
Rick Niswander, ECU’s vice chancellor for administration and finance, was dean of the business school, Faculty Senate chair and on the search committee that interviewed Ballard 12 years ago. Ballard’s leadership style of hiring good people and letting them do their jobs without micromanagement helped convince him to take on a larger role at the university.
“You don’t get there unless you’re confident in your own skin, and he’s confident in his own skin,” Niswander says.
Ballard also worked with leaders around the community and region to make sure ECU is part of decisions affecting the region.
“One of the marks of a good leader is that he surrounds himself with good people, and Chancellor Ballard has done an excellent job of that,” says Tony Cannon, chief executive of Greenville Utilities. “He has put the right people in place to position ECU, Greenville and the region for a bright future.”
Joel Butler, who served as a university trustee from 2004-2013, says Ballard has held fast to what’s best for ECU when he has had to make tough decisions or persuade others to do so, such as when dealing with budget restrictions or when the university was working to establish a dental school.
Ballard didn’t think the initial dental school plan was right for ECU, Butler says. But as the plan evolved into one incorporating service-learning centers, it became a better blueprint.
“That allowed for political support across the state,” Butler says. “I think in the Legislature, he is very thoughtful and very level-headed and very persuasive.”
In addition, he says, during Ballard’s administration, service became a central part of ECU.
“He did more than speak about it,” Butler says. “He also made sure the idea of service was co-mingled throughout the curriculum of the university.”
Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Virginia Hardy first worked with Ballard as interim chief diversity officer. She notes his “wicked” sense of humor, his integrity and that he challenges his team with insightful questions.
One of his top accomplishments is “developing and nurturing effective teams who are committed to shared decision making, collaboration and to being authentic to who we are as an institution,” she says. “He is a mentor, coach and friend.”
Ballard seeks out people who, like himself, put ECU first.
“He cares very much about the university,” Niswander says “His values and the university’s values are closely aligned. The notion of being part of something that’s bigger than yourself, that’s what it’s all about.
“Being a chancellor for 12 years-it’s almost unheard of anymore, and you don’t do it if you don’t enjoy it.”
One thing Ballard does enjoy is being around students, and their success has been a priority while he’s been chancellor.”The most fun I have is when I meet with students,” Ballard says. “The soul of ECU is our students.”
Ballard notes that some universities are committed to generating the most research dollars, some to having the No. 1 football team or basketball team, some to being No. 1 in U.S. News & World Report.
“There’s nothing wrong with any of those things,” Ballard says, “but at ECU, our first obligation is doing all we can for our students.”
That commitment can be seen in the growing Honors College, an enrollment target of 1,000 engineering students and in other ways.
In addition, ECU is on its way to establishing a School of Public Health after several years growing that discipline on the department level.
Enrollment has consistently increased, and incoming freshman have higher GPAs and test scores than ever. New facilities such as the Gateway East and West residence halls and new student centers under construction along 10th Street and on the Health Sciences Campus demonstrate the university’s commitment to making the student experience second to none. Student-athletes have also seen gains during Ballard’s tenure. Women’s sports have become fully funded, meaning they have the money to allot the maximum number of scholarships under NCAA rules.
The football team won consecutive Conference USA titles and has made several bowl appearances.
Swimming and diving continued their traditions of success, winning multiple conference championships, producing NCAA All-Americans, individual conference champions and nearly 200 all-conference performers.
The baseball team won the 2015 American Athletic Conference tournament title, and at least four other teams have won conference titles since Ballard arrived.
Administrators and faculty work together
When John Stiller became chair of the faculty in 2015, it was without any direct experience as a central faculty officer. He had never met with the academic council and had never had a one-on-one meeting with Chancellor Steve Ballard.
“At our first meeting, Dr. Ballard was so welcoming, so respectful of my role as faculty chair, and so open and direct, that I quickly lost any jitters,” Stiller says. “I felt the same way in my meetings with all our senior administrators. It exemplified for me, in a direct and personal way, how Dr. Ballard has helped to cultivate the strong collaborative environment that means so much to our ongoing successes as a university.”
The University of North Carolina Board of Governors requires each chancellor to ensure the existence of a faculty senate or council at each campus in the system, and this model of shared governance has worked particularly well at ECU.
“Chancellor Ballard took this charge very seriously and worked to preserve this active and productive shared governance model at ECU,” says Marianna Walker, who chaired the faculty from 2009-2012. “He made sure that the faculty, especially through the Faculty Senate, always had a voice, and he took that voice seriously.”
Walker and Ballard embarked on a series of meetings called “CH3: Chats with the Chancellor and Chair of the Faculty,” where faculty from all areas could discuss obstacles and opportunities.
Ballard’s administration and the Faculty Senate worked together on several issues through the years including tough budget decisions, academic reorganization and a complete revision of the ECU Faculty Manual. This positive relationship between the chancellor and the chair of the faculty has continued.
“From both my own experiences and comments from my predecessors, I think Dr. Ballard is an exceptional team-builder,” Stiller says. “He recognizes the importance of involving diverse campus and community constituencies in planning and enacting key initiatives, particularly those with broad impact.”
That brings up what is perhaps the top athletic accomplishment during Ballard’s tenure: getting ECU into the AAC after years of knocking on the door of major conferences only to be told Greenville’s media market was too small.
“We’re the only small-market school that has gone up so significantly,” Ballard says. “For us to make that jump was a huge accomplishment. And that wasn’t me; dozens of people helped with that. I’ve had chancellors at peer universities tell me they would never try to. All of Pirate Nation should feel good about that accomplishment.”
While ECU has gained access into a larger conference, maintaining competitive athletic programs will continue to be a challenge, Ballard says. Today’s college athletic landscape is uneven; ECU spends a fraction of what some schools in the South and Midwest spend on athletics.
“Pirates are really competitive, and I’m proud of how we’ve competed, but the challenge is competing in an environment where some universities have so much money,” Ballard says. “That disparity makes the competition more challenging. I think we’ve done really well on that, but it’s going to remain a significant challenge.”
If college athletics is an ever-changing challenge, it’s nothing compared to health care, particularly the unique issues faced by medical schools.
ECU’s Brody School of Medicine was founded in an era of relatively generous federal and state support for medical schools and health care in general. But cutbacks have added pressure on Brody. The university has worked to preserve the school and make sure legislators know its purpose, mission and structure, such as the fact the school doesn’t own a hospital.
“In the future, the question is, what do we have to do to ensure that the Brody School of Medicine remains fiscally viable in an era in which all the revenue streams and reimbursement variables have changed dramatically,” he says. “The world has changed. The competition has changed.”
As a result of the efforts of Ballard and other ECU leaders, in 2015 Brody received $8 million from the state to help stabilize its budget, and the state has restored some of its ability to collect debt and bill Medicaid at higher rates for patient-care services.
Ballard’s advice for the next chancellor would be “don’t let anything come before your work on the Brody School and all the leadership in health sciences. That challenge is huge because the environment is 180 degrees different from when I got here.”
The overall ECU budget will also be a challenge. During the last six years, ECU has lost close to $110 million in state appropriations, or close to one-quarter of its state funds. Those cuts led in 2011 to the formation of the Program Prioritization Committee, a group of administrators and faculty members that reviewed 277 academic programs and made recommendations for which ones to invest in, cut, merge or otherwise modify to improve efficiency and reduce costs. It was an example of how Ballard has been able to work with faculty on important issues.
“We all have to realize the future isn’t going to look like the past, in terms of budget,” Ballard says.
Hardy says Ballard has helped grow the awareness and reputation of ECU, particularly at the UNC system level and with the General Assembly.
“He has set the bar high for how we do things and doing them with a sense of integrity, authenticity, urgency and quality,” she says. “We have been able to do this with so many different initiatives, projects and programs that ECU is often looked at as a model by other campuses.”
In his 2005 speech, Ballard said, “North Carolina cannot be a great state without a thriving eastern region. North Carolina needs the East, and for the East to prosper, ECU must prosper.”
Twelve years later, Ballard is confident about ECU’s next steps.
“If we continue to emphasize academic quality for our students, there’s nothing in the way of ECU being as good and as important and as significant as we want it to be,” he says. “I have no doubts about what is here in the future.”
Or, to build on Ballard’s favorite phrase, it will keep on being a great time to be a Pirate.