Around President Jo Ann Gora's office, there is not a single picture of her husband, two children or three grandchildren.
Instead, the items that cover the walls and windowsills tell the story of a different family, a decade of Ball State history.
“As I look around this office, I think it's a mess,” Gora said. “It's like I've never thrown out anything that anyone has given me. It's like it has found a way to find itself on the windowsill.”
Framed photos on the walls show Gora standing next to influential people who have come to campus, including Oprah Winfrey and David Letterman. There's a hat from the Pride of Mid-America Marching Band, gifts from donors, a desk covered in paperwork and different awards on the windowsills and tables.
As she circles her office in the Administration Building Room 101, she points to each item and explains how she got it.
“There's memories attached to all of these,” she said.
The only personal item she brought with her a decade ago is a set of babushka dolls that sit on the windowsill. She bought them on the streets of Moscow in 1982, when she and a group of sociologists visited the city. They are painted to represent the leaders of the Soviet Union, “down to Lenin.”
She said her group was there talking about the relationship between risk and reward in capitalism — the idea that if a person is willing to take a risk, they can either win or lose everything.
During her time at Ball State, Gora has shown a tolerance for risk and has brought the institution some high rewards.
Since taking office, she launched the school's national marketing campaigns, Education Redefined and Education Redefined 2.0, helped raise millions for the university and reshape its landscape.
She oversaw two capital campaigns, the Bold campaign which raised more than $210 million and the recent athletic campaign that hopes to raise $20 million, as well as the beginning of immersive learning, now the trademark of a Ball State education.
But there have been bumps along the way.
Lawmakers in 2011 questioned the rising cost of tuition at state institutions. Gora and other university presidents said falling support made the increases necessary. Ball State alone has lost more than $70 million in state funding, and Gora argued the university’s strengths deserved better. In the last funding cycle, the school received an increase in funding and the state also supplied the final $30 million in funding for the giant geothermal project.
“I felt very good about the last [legislative] session,” she said. “I also think we are positioned very well for the next session. All of the work that we have done to raise admission standards, to increase graduation rates: we will see the benefit of that in 2015 in that legislative session.”
In April, Gora met with four legislators to back up her statement that intelligent design is a religious theory, rather than a scientific one. Her statement in August was made in response to professor Eric Hedin being accused of teaching intelligent design in an honors colloquium.
“We will always answer the questions that people have, but to me this is very clear,” she said. “This is not an issue of free speech; this is an issue of academic integrity. Intelligent design should not be taught in science classes — it is a religious belief, it is not a scientific fact, and that is the position we’ve taken.”
In November, Gora took a stance against House Joint Resolution 3, a proposed ban on same-sex marriage in Indiana, for both moral and economic reasons. Her statement was released after the University Senate and the Student Government Association made statements against HJR-3.
“I think everybody understands that ... we all have a right, and in some cases an obligation, to say what we think is right and it’s important to do that,” Gora said. “I’m very comfortable with the position that we took. And I was very proud of the fact that the faculty wanted to state their position, the students stated their position, the staff stated their position.”
For her, true leadership is about long-term planning and considering what will help the institution in the long run, although she was concerned about how both these statements would affect the institution.
“We thought, is this going to alienate some prospective students who we would really like to recruit or families or whatever?” she said. “But, you know, you do what you think is right and you take the stance that you believe is right for the long term. And then you try to make sure that people understand your position and that you’re communicating it well and you move forward.”
For Gora, it was her resolve and determination that got her through these changes.
“Any significant changes you want to make are rarely done easily, and they are rarely done with the enthusiastic applause of everyone,” she said. “So you have to have a certain level of confidence and resolve to ... [reach] that point where you say, ‘I hear what you are saying, but I still think we should move forward.’ And as it turns out, that has paid off for the institution.”
When she came to the university in 2004 as the first female president to lead a public university in Indiana, she was walking into a very different environment.
During the previous academic year, two students died off campus. The university was undergoing a multimillion dollar lawsuit, and the students and faculty resisted the closed search used to hire Gora.
A University Police Department officer shot and killed Michael McKinney, a senior, while responding to a reported off-campus robbery Nov. 7, 2003. The McKinney family filed the lawsuit for $100 million that month, and the lawsuit ended years later in favor of the officer.
During that same academic year, Karl Harford, a Ball State sophomore, was robbed and killed off campus March 7, 2004.
Meanwhile, the university was trying to find a new president. For the first time, Ball State didn’t release the names of the candidates, but rather had a committee recommend candidates for the Board of Trustees to select.
Students hosted a protest by marching around campus and started a petition for more representation in the presidential selection process. Faculty similarly wanted to be more involved in the process and voiced concerns during University Senate meetings.
Gora, who was previously the chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Boston, was coming into a very tense environment.
“I was very aware of the fact that people needed to get to know me, and I needed to get to know them and we needed to develop a level of trust,” she said. “They needed to know that I believed in the institution, or else I wouldn’t have accepted the job. Bad things happen on every campus. There are challenges always. There is nothing unusual about that.
“It may be shocking at the time for that community, but in the grand scheme of things, we’re running little cities here. And so most of the time, maybe 99 percent of the time, everything is working well. But you can never assume that on any given day, everything is going to be just fine. You always have to be prepared for the unfortunate problems and the serious issues that have to be dealt with.”
During her first 100 days, Gora called and offered her condolences to both families of the students who died. She then met with legislators, faculty and student leaders, including 40 of the 50 academic departments.
Since then, Gora has continued to work with the board, legislators, community leaders, faculty, alumni and donors. But she has always made an extra effort to reach out to students. Each year, she takes freshmen to lunch if they ask.
“I really relish those opportunities to talk to, as I refer to them, my ‘customers,’” she said. “I always say that students will give you the truth about an institution in a shorter time than anybody else. So I relish those opportunities when I get to have one-on-one time with students and hear about their experiences.”
Her close relationships with students even earned her the nickname “JoGo.”
“I actually think that is a great nickname, I do,” she said. “When I think of all the terrible nicknames I could have, I am happy with that. I’ll take that.”
Gora said the past 10 years have led to a “remarkable change in the institution.”
“Everyone focuses on the physical changes, but in truth, it’s the other changes that are more dramatic and are more profound,” she said. “All the physical changes are fabulous. ... But the change in the culture of the institution, I think, is much more profound and will have a lasting impact on the institution for the next several decades.”
She said faculty, students, alumni and donors embracing the concept of immersive learning is really the new culture of Ball State.
“I get a lot of the credit, but everybody is making us successful,” she said. “I don’t do it all. I do a little portion of it, and everybody does a little portion of it. It’s a team effort.”
Leaving the university, Gora has seen Ball State through a successful accreditation, is welcoming an incoming class with the highest high-school GPAs and test scores yet, the Education Redefined 2.0 strategic plan is set through 2017, the second phase of the geothermal project is underway and a campus-wide physical master plan is in the works.
The next step for her, she said, is to enjoy a looser schedule.
“It is the relentless pace of these kind of jobs that makes them exhausting, really,” Gora said in a press conference in October. “And so at some point you say, ‘OK, I need some space in my life.’ I feel that I need more space in my life right now.”
She is considering starting a consulting firm called Higher Education Solutions, which would allow her to work with presidents and boards on fundraising initiatives and strategic planning.
In a press conference in October, Gora said she and her husband, Roy Budd, own a home in Williamsburg, Va., about three miles from their grandchildren.
“It would be nice to actually live in the house,” Gora said in the press conference. “So, we will probably take up residence in Virginia.”
As for the last 10 years, Gora said she has no regrets and she feels she has put in place some long-term benefits for the university and for whoever fills her position.
“My message to faculty is challenge the students,” she said. “Have the highest standards possible because only by having those high standards will our students really prosper, will they really benefit. For our students I would say, these are the best four years of your life, don’t waste them. ...
“I think we have so much to be proud of.”