AuthorFallows, James
PositionBall State University in Muncie, Indiana


1) "Let's do It."

An hour before dawn on May 7, Geoffrey Mearns stepped out of his house in Muncie, Indiana, and started to run with his dog, Cadi.

That made it a normal morning for Mearns. Decades ago, in high school in Cleveland, he had been a distance-running star, and at Yale he set records in track and cross-country. His marathon times qualified him for the 1984 U.S. Olympic trials, which he missed because of a foot injury. Now in his early 60s, Mearns has the look of a man who could still outrun everyone around him and has never fallen out of shape.

The stakes on that morning's run were unusually high. For the past five years, Mearns had been the president of Ball State University in Muncie, a large-enrollment public research institution. Why the name? A little more than 100 years ago, the five Ball brothers of Muncie, who became rich and famous through the iconic glass jars with a Ball signature and Ball home canning equipment, bought the land and buildings of a bankrupt private college and gave it to the state as a public university. Ball State's student body now numbers more than 20,000.

Before the sun came up that Saturday morning, Mearns had to make a choice with short-term consequences for the university and at least symbolic connections to larger choices, and gambles, the institution had made during his tenure.

The immediate choice involved the weather, which was terrible. For the past few days, heavy rain had moved over the Midwest--and refused to budge. On Friday, Mearns had chaired trustee meetings and gala receptions on campus. Attendees had scuttled under umbrellas to avoid getting drenched.

One of the soggiest parts of campus was the sweeping grass sward of the elegant outdoor quadrangle, now a flooded turf with several thousand folding chairs, carefully laid out for Ball State's first commencement ceremony on the traditional quadrangle since the pandemic began. The choice Geoffrey Mearns said he would make by sunrise was whether to move the ceremony inside, to the basketball arena.

Mearns ran around the quadrangle and looked at the sky, checking and rechecking the weather radar on his phone. Around 6 a.m., he called his staff associates and his wife, Jennifer, to say, as I heard him put it later that morning, "Let's do it." The commencement would be outside. It was still drizzling as he made the call.

At 10 a.m., in a bright red academic robe, Mearns welcomed the graduates, who were seated on 10,000 chairs that had just been wiped and blown dry, to a providential beginning of the next stage of their lives.

Of course, it wouldn't really have mattered if the call had been wrong--if the rain hadn't cleared, if the sun hadn't broken through until midday. I've sat through wet commencements before. They can make for rueful but proud reminiscences years afterward. ("Well, things started out tough ...") In this case, my wife, Deb, and I would have been among the rained-on at Ball State, with stories to tell; we had come to give commencement addresses and accept honorary degrees. But the rain had stopped, and we were in the procession, walking carefully over the slippery grass behind Mearns.

The reason we were there, and had come to know the Ball State community over the previous three years, was our belief that the "Let's do it" spirit of Mearns's bet about the weather, while of minor consequence on its own, was connected to larger gambles and commitments Ball State has made. (The university's motto, "We Fly," is just a more elegant version of "Let's do it.")

Over the past five years, the most dramatic step Ball State has taken might also be the most consequential for Muncie. In 2018, the city turned the management of its entire K-12 public school system over to the public university, something with no clear precedent in American higher education history.

This takeover, unlike the weather forecast, is genuinely important, and Deb and I think what we have seen in central Indiana matters. It and developments like it have attracted little or no attention from the national press. But we think they are an introduction to an important new era of colleges, college leaders, and "college towns."

2) The story of college towns ...

Let's start at the end, with "college towns." The term is a reminder that having a nearby college has different implications for a community than having a factory or an office park. Small liberal arts colleges, big research universities...

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