NEW ALBANY — Deborah Curtis didn't necessarily mean to end up at Indiana State University. She graduated from the university with a doctorate in curriculum and instruction, but she spent 26 years on the faculty of another ISU, Illinois State University, where she served in various leadership roles, including as dean of the College of Education. In 2012, she accepted the role of provost and chief learning officer at the University of Central Missouri, where she might have stayed were but for a phone call from a jobs consultant.
“I said 'Ryan, I told you. I'm good — I'm happy,' And he says, 'Well, this is [at] Indiana State. I said, 'Oh… I'll call you right back.” That call put Deborah Curtis on path back to Terre Haute, where since January they call her President on the campus.
In a Sycamore-blue blazer and sporting a leaf pin and boundless energy, Curtis spent Friday in Jeffersonville and New Albany, connecting with alumni and promoting the state's public university. She brought with her a message of vitality in purpose: student-center learning that leads to success in life.
Bringing in students, helping them graduate and achieve success, and contributing to the overall well-being of the state starts and ends with meeting students where they are, Curtis told the News and Tribune.
“What we are talking about is a multi-pronged approach that focuses on the citizen themselves, from when they're a 5-year-old going to school and needing to go preschool to … life-long and career-long learning,” said Curtis, who noted a strong presence of ISU alumni in Southern Indiana.
The university president believes it's important to reinforce to students at an early age that a college education is attainable. She understands there's not just one model for that, though. She points to success stories of students who obtain degrees and certifications through online degree programs.
“Our fastest growing programs are online,” she said. “There's an adult need out there. Some of them are graduate [students], but some are undergraduate … Anyone in the state can take that program and it's all online.”
Curtis also understands why some students opt to attend Ivy Tech first, recognizing the value in working with the statewide community college system so that once students finish at Ivy Tech, “there is a smooth glide right into completing at Indiana State.”
What Curtis describes as “stackable” and “bite-sized” programs are also high on her to-do list.
“We have 10, 15, 18 [credit] hour package we call a certificate. You leave knowing here's your certificate and by the way, it's just another 15 hours to that degree," she said. "That's the way we are thinking now.”
ALL THINGS SPORTS
A two-year renovation of Hulman Center is underway and couldn't come soon enough for Curtis, a former volleyball and softball coach whose husband, Lynn, coached prep basketball.
“One of the last basketball games, we were looking up at the scoreboard and there's a couple of tiles in there starting to flicker and I'm thinking "No, no, no we are almost there!' We felt that way with a lot of things ... we made it, but it feels like we are sliding in with those mechanical systems,” she said.
The kitchen has been pulled out and asbestos abatement has begun, though some of the project is being rebid due to increased steel prices. Men's and women's basketball games will still be played in Hulman Center during the $50 million renovation, which includes new seating, champions club, a second elevator and an exterior makeover.
Though she's still in the “dream” phase, Curtis has her sights set on several other sports-related projects across the campus, including a new football stadium west of campus toward the Wabash River, near where an industrial building has been transformed into loft apartments. That area already is home to the ISU baseball stadium and track-and-field complex. Building a new football stadium would solve what Curtis calls the “one unfortunate thing” about the campus.
“There are so many beautiful things on our campus but … we rent this football stadium from the city which is like three or four miles from campus. It isn't conducive to the game day experience for a campus,” she said.
Also on her list: locker rooms and a coach's office at the softball facility, a practice gym for basketball, and a soccer field near where she'd like to put the football field.
“We have a firm coming to do some dreaming with us about it this fall,” the president said. She believes that having the football stadium on campus would promote student involvement. “... You can't sit in a dorm and hear that football game outside your window and not say 'let's go.'”
Revamping and building the sports venues would come at a time when the rest of the campus is coming into place, she said.
“It's got everything else going for it. We are doing a $15 million in renovation this summer in our Fine Arts building and that'll be reopened in a year," Curtis said. "We just opened that brand new Health and Human Services building, doing $50 million at the Hulman Center. All those pieces are clicking and wouldn't it be phenomenal to have that place between Third [Street] and the river being the place where all the sports [are]?”
Sports isn't the only reason students come to ISU, but it is a factor in their decision, the president said, and she's not a fan of doing things halfway.
“There are places to go where there's no football, basketball and if that's what you want, you go there for that. But that's not who we've been known to be," she said. "I've never been a fan of doing things halfway. You're either in or you're out. If we are in, we really need to be the best we can be.”
She hopes the Sycamores football team will be the best it can be Saturday, as they visit Louisville to take on the Cardinals. The fan-president will be in the stands, rooting for the Trees.