#BizVoiceExtra: BSU and the President’s Office

Sitting down and having discussions with business, government and community leaders is a part of this communications/BizVoice editor gig that is truly enjoyable. And conversations with university presidents or chancellors are always intriguing. Most, as expected, are excellent communicators. Some (no, I’m not going to name names) give you the impression the talk might be at a higher level than the actions to follow.

I enjoyed a recent sit-down with Geoff Mearns, the 18th president of my alma mater – Ball State. The focus was to be on university-community engagement. It shifted a bit to K-12 when legislation currently making its way through the Indiana General Assembly would place Ball State in the role of managing the troubled Muncie Community Schools. (Read more on both here).

Mearns is impressive – not just in our talk but in the views of many in Muncie and beyond. A trial lawyer for 15-plus years, he says the most important skill (in that job and his current one) is listening. He’s doing just that and taking the initial steps to move BSU in the right direction as it prepares to look beyond the 2018 celebration of its 100th anniversary.

Although Terry King served in an interim role for nearly a year and a half, Ball State is coming off the still mysterious departure of Paul Ferguson. Yes, these situations when a relationship at such a high level does not work out are tricky, but as a journalism graduate of the school, it was extremely disappointing to see the lack of transparency/communication when Ferguson was suddenly gone in January 2016. In fact, he had been in our Indiana Chamber offices less than two weeks earlier for a BizVoice roundtable.

On the positive side, Beverley Pitts was a longtime BSU administrator who served as interim president for a portion of 2004 before Jo Ann Gora began a decade-long tenure. Pitts went on to the same role at the University of Indianapolis from 2005-2012. Here is a conversation we shared upon her retirement. Her journalism background – and those strong communication abilities – may have played a part in my admiration of her leadership.

A note on another BSU president. John Worthen moved into that spot in 1984 (the year I graduated) and served until 2000 (bringing some much-needed stability). And then he stayed in Muncie. The basketball/volleyball home is now Worthen Arena and I’m told the former president is frequently on hand to cheer on the Cardinals.

Fewer Voters Blame Pres. Obama for Gas Prices

Personally, when I see a hyperpartisan political opponent of a sitting president prattle on about how he’s responsible for high gas prices, I generally roll my eyes. (Truth be told, I generally roll my eyes when hyperpartisan people say anything.) It just seems like there are a lot of factors — OPEC-related and the like — that are out of America’s hands (although President Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL Pipeline likely won’t help matters). But according to a recent Washington Post article, fewer voters appear to be blaming the President for lofty costs at the pump:

Back in September 2005, gas prices surged to $2.90 per gallon across the country ($3.50 in today’s dollars), largely because Hurricane Katrina had shut down production across the Gulf of Mexico — an event that couldn’t plausibly be blamed on Bush. Yet 28 percent of Americans still blamed the president anyway. (Of course, one explanation is that voters were expressing discontent with the way the Bush administration handled the aftermath of Katrina.)

This time around, meanwhile, gas prices are even higher — the national average is now $3.74 per gallon — largely due to tight supplies and tensions between the United States and Iran (and the latter situation is something the White House actually is heavily involved with). Yet only 18 percent of Americans say the president’s responsible for pump prices. The number of Americans who are refusing to assign blame has jumped. Who knows? Perhaps after years of high gas prices a sense of fatalism has set in.

This jibes with political science research finding that, for the most part, a president’s re-election doesn’t hinge on the price of gasoline. Of course, that doesn’t mean that gas prices are meaningless — or that Obama can breathe easy about the situation. If spiking oil prices end up biting into economic growth, then the president’s prospects for re-election really would start sinking. As always, the economy matters a lot.

1888 a Big Year for Pres. Harrison, Union Station and Indiana

I’m doing some writing in a volunteer capacity for the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site here in Indy. For the upcoming September edition of its newsletter ("The Statesman"), I wrote an article about Union Station — which was built the same year Harrison was elected. I’m reposting the article here with permission (and please consider visiting or volunteering at the Harrison Home; it’s a wonderful standing tribute to a past president and Indiana resident):

The image and landscape of Indianapolis was changing in 1888. The population had boomed in the middle of the century, and its place in a nation still on the mend – just a quarter of a century after the Civil War – was evolving. The year saw many developments in the city, in fact. U.S. Senator Benjamin Harrison thwarted incumbent President Grover Cleveland’s bid for re-election. Indiana limestone and oak provided the foundation for Indiana’s new Statehouse – and at the heart of it all for residents and visitors alike was a new Union Station. While Harrison traveled out of the old Union Station en route to his posts during the Civil War, as well as his later duties in Washington, D.C., his grand departure to the White House was out of the new station in 1889.

To understand why the new station was necessary, one must turn back the clock even further to 1860. Just a decade after rail first came to Indianapolis, the city’s population had more than doubled in size to 18,611. This is not only when it became the state’s largest city, but when it became the state’s central hub (as Madison and New Albany had been the most critical conduits before that time due to their locations along the Ohio River). Soon, five railroad trunk lines and about 40 smaller operations were running trains through the Hoosier State. Though one of the first belt railroads in America was built for the Union Stockyards in 1877 (and the Indianapolis Union Railway Company leased it for the staggering duration of 999 years), owners of the five main lines knew a new building would soon be in order to accommodate the increased traffic.

The man cited by many as the chief visionary for the new facility was James McCrea, president of the Indianapolis Union Railway Company (and later president of the Pennsylvania Railroad). In an 1886 article, The Indianapolis Journal credited McCrea’s persistence as being the driving force in the development of the new facility. Once legislative approval came in 1885 and the real estate was acquired, the wheels were in motion, so to speak, to erect the new station between Illinois and Meridian Streets – just north of where the existing facility stood.

The new station opened in September 1888. The Indianapolis Journal reported:

The station proper is 150 feet square, three stories high, with basement and attic rooms. The tower is 185 feet high, and besides this structure there are two baggage rooms, one at the west and the other at the east end of the train sheds. The baggage rooms are each 150 feet long by twenty-five feet wide.

The train sheds are 741 feet long by 200 feet wide, constructed of iron with a tin roof. The station proper rests on a granite foundation, the stone coming from Iron Mountain, Missouri. The walls above are constructed of pressed brick, with brown-stone trimmings, which were shipped from Pennsylvania… Under cover of the sheds are ten long tracks, 741 feet long, and two short tracks…

Furthermore, The Indianapolis Sentinel explained:

Ticket-agent [Daniel] Donough is much pleased with his quarters. “It is absolutely,” he says, “the finest ticket office in the United States.” Tom Taggart’s lunchrooms are open this morning, fully prepared for the multitude who are already coming for the fair. The rooms on the upper floors, with the exception of the telegraph room, are not ready for occupancy.”

While most publicity was positive, this admonishing note was published in the September 22 edition of The Indianapolis Journal, although it likely seems comical to today’s reader:

There is a good deal of complaint among the male population who are not admitted to the ladies’ [waiting] room in the new Union Station. This is a rule at all large railway stations in this country and will doubtless be enforced until men have better habits. There should be one room at a large railway station, in fact, at a small one as well, where a lady can move about without her skirts dragging in tobacco spit.

As it pertains to Harrison, the station played a major role in his campaign. Oddly enough, it wasn’t because he travelled a great deal – but because he opted not to. In choosing to run a locally-based – or “front porch” – campaign from his home in Indianapolis, reporters, delegates and celebrities instead came to the city to see him, thus bringing more traffic through Union Station. His exposure proved to be just enough as he lost the popular vote, but was victorious in the all-important Electoral College.

Though he triumphantly left the station en route to his new accommodations in the White House in 1889, he would soon make a very forlorn return to the facility, coming back for his wife Caroline’s funeral in October 1892. (She died in the White House following a yearlong battle with tuberculosis.) Her death occurred just two weeks before the 1892 election, which he lost to Cleveland.

For more on the history of Union Station, read Indianapolis Union Station: Trains, Travelers and Changing Times, by James R. Hetherington.


BONUS FUN FACT: An energetic, inquisitive 17-year-old Thomas Edison worked at the old Union Station as a Western Union telegraph operator for a few months in 1864.

Least Impressive Inauguration Speeches in American History

Yahoo! News ran an interesting article today (linked on Huffington Post) featuring some of the worst inauguration speeches presidents have ever made. Let’s hope President Obama can avoid this list. I found Thomas Jefferson’s to be most interesting, mainly because of the caustic nature in which he went after the media (some things are timeless):

After a soaring first address in 1801, Thomas Jefferson was reelected and offered a sophomore effort that was an angry, monotone dud, historians say. Bitter at the "licentious" media and four years of attacks on his administration, the president was on the defensive and not as his inspirational best:

"During this course of administration, and in order to disturb it, the artillery of the press has been leveled against us, charged with whatsoever its licentiousness could devise or dare. These abuses of an institution so important to freedom and science, are deeply to be regretted, inasmuch as they tend to lessen its usefulness, and to sap its safety; they might, indeed, have been corrected by the wholesome punishments reserved and provided by the laws of the several States against falsehood and defamation; but public duties more urgent press on the time of public servants, and the offenders have therefore been left to find their punishment in the public indignation."

Can anyone else not pronounce "licentious?" I keep saying "licenshish." Anyway…

The worst likely remains William Henry Harrison’s (described in the article), whose 8,000-word address in the dead of winter may have ended up killing him. Now that’s a rough speech.