Curled up next to his grandmother, 4-year-old Brody couldn’t resist: “Mimi, your hair’s not looking good,” he said, referring to her bald head. “I asked Jesus to make you better. Are you better?” It was the kind of innocent honesty that Beth Barber cherished, and she needed the pick-me-up.
In 2008, Beth was diagnosed with breast cancer, just a month after her husband Ray Barber was inaugurated as Oakland City University’s president. You’re celebrating one minute, she says, and then a regular check-up reveals you have cancer the next. “It’s almost like our bubble had burst,” she says.
That bubble had burst in many ways. Barber became president at a time when the stock market had dropped. During an economic crisis, he was tasked with raising $1.6 million to complete the Tichenor Center that was under construction, and Barber also needed to keep the university funds steady enough to avoid salary decreases and layoffs. His actions were proof he would be a positive leader, improve campus life, and foster community ties — even when his wife needed him most.
Just a year ago, Barber led the university (just north of Evansville) in implementing a new vision, mission statement, and strategic plan that echoed the motto, “Enter to Learn, Go Forth to Serve.” In this plan, he developed the “three pillars of OCU.” Each stands for how the university prepares students in “the head, the heart, and the hands,” through knowledge gained from the classroom, time for investigating individual faith, and opportunities to serve such as mission trips and community volunteerism.
He was setting the tone for growth. This fall, OCU will add eight new associate degrees in administrative office technology, advertising and public relations, business leadership and management, communication, computer technology applications, graphic and web design, occupational safety and health, and praise and worship ministry. Barber says they are also in the process of finalizing plans for upcoming construction projects: a new entranceway on Williams Street and Highway 57 that includes new signage on a brick entrance and a new bell tower at the corner of Williams and Lucretia streets.
Barber isn’t the first leader at OCU to experience a challenging presidency. In 1885, when the General Association of General Baptists organized its charter in the State of Indiana, Oakland City College was born. Because funding lagged, the school’s doors didn’t open to students until 1891. They attended one facility with administration offices and classrooms on a donated 10-acre plot. The Christian-based college expanded in the mid-1920s when new buildings were constructed and extracurricular activities came to campus.
Then, the Great Depression halted growth and forced faculty and staff to give up their paychecks to keep the school open. In 1973, when the United States pulled out of the Vietnam War, the school fell victim again to inadequate funding. With some fundraising from the General Baptists, the college survived and earned full accreditations from the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools and from the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education. The school gained university status and added graduate, doctoral, and more than 20 bachelor’s degrees in five schools — adult and extended learning, arts and sciences, business, education, and the Chapman School of religious studies — and developed the campus over 34 acres with multiple facilities including an administration building, an athletic center, four dorms, married student housing, a cafeteria, and nine educational halls. The school also reached a broader realm of students by creating four other campuses throughout Indiana in Evansville, Indianapolis, Rockport, and Bedford.
In 1985, the same year OCU celebrated its 100th anniversary, Barber graduated from the university with a bachelor’s degree in religious studies, and in 1988, he received his master’s degree in divinity from the school’s Chapman Seminary. After four years pastoring in Arkansas, Barber returned to his alma mater for a position in a program helping underprivileged students. He spent the next decade in an array of jobs: campus minister, director of the doctorate of ministry program, dean of seminary, and administrative vice president.
In 2007, former president James W. Murray retired after 33 years as president, and Barber earned a shot as the head of the school. He got right to work: Nearly the entire $1.6 million needed for the university was raised before his official inauguration on April 30, 2008, the same year that more than 2.5 million people nationwide lost their jobs. But Barber wasn’t interested in laying anyone off. By the end of 2009, when the Indiana unemployment rate had reached nearly 10 percent, Barber had hired five new faculty members. Instead of reducing benefits, he increased them by 300 percent for all employees, and raised salaries 3 percent that first year and 1.5 percent annually after that.
In the midst of these milestones, Barber still knew where his priorities stood. “All I remember,” Barber says about the day he found out Beth had cancer, “is how sad her eyes were.” At first, they asked, “Why us? Why now?” Finally, they decided, “Why not us?”
Beth continued to work in the business office, where she first started when Barber was pursuing his degrees, and Barber planned his business ventures around her three-hour chemo treatments each Friday. He only missed two during the five months of treatments.
Between the chemo, radiation, and fear, it wasn’t easy. When weak moments arose, the couple drew strength from others. At times, Barber arrived to work feeling on edge and asked colleagues such as Robert Yeager, vice president for administration and finance, for help. Barber says it wasn’t always wise for him to make a decision pertaining to the school, so he would tell Yeager to keep an eye on him. Regardless of the circumstances, Yeager says, it’s important for administration to work together. But because of their situation, “It made us closer quicker,” he says. “When you share that type of experience you form a bond that gets you through some tough times.”
To Barber, the students mattered most. “Your world may be falling apart,” he says, “but the rest of the world is still going on. You have to deal with that world.” His team was with him every step of the way: praying, crying, laughing, and making important university decisions with him.
In spring 2009, after listening to the concerns of students, the school brought in a new food service, Pioneer College Caterers, offering more meal options and nutritional information for healthy eating. Barber also restored a tradition that had been absent for more than 30 years: public meals offered after church on Sundays. It’s a way for the university to give back to the community, he says.
For the city’s fire department, the school bought a new SUV, multiple automated external defibrillators, and also donated $250,000 to help them buy a new fire truck. The police department also received a vehicle from the university, half the payment for another one, and the funding for a drug dog.
Throughout his presidency, Barber has brought some key players to the university: a full-time campus minister (there hadn’t been a full-time minister for at least 30 years), a new online director, and a psychology counselor. The counselor, Barber says, came as a direct request from students who wanted someone they could confide in on a nonreligious basis.
A part of Barber’s success as president comes from his predecessors. John Dunn, CEO of Dunn Hospitality Group and president of the OCU Foundation, says before Barber became president, he worked under a great mentor, Murray. Dunn, an OCU alum and annual donor, says he’s known Barber since he first came to the university. By surrounding himself with talented people — on his administration team and faculty — Barber’s “been able to take the school up a notch,” Dunn says.
Recently, a consultant from the university visited Barber. His wife had just been diagnosed with cancer. “Immediately my thoughts went out not only to his wife, but to him,” Barber says. “For the first time in my life, I realized how much cancer is a family disease.” His advice to the man: Tell her how much you love her, and that she’s still beautiful after all the hair is gone — because she is.
Barber finds the positives while facing an ordeal. “I think I am a better person today and really a better president as a result. It kept my feet anchored in what was really important to me,” he says. “I’d love to get home at night and rub her bald head.”
Beth just celebrated her third anniversary cancer free. Little Brody got his answer: Mimi’s better.