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Thursday, August 11, 2022

Higher Dreams

Before University of Southern Indiana President H. Ray Hoops officially retires this summer, just weeks before his 70th birthday, he’s likely to be lauded publicly for a 15-year tenure marked by dramatic growth.

No doubt he’ll be hailed for a litany of measurable accomplishments that include more than quadrupling the university’s annual operating budget from $22 million to $100 million, overseeing the construction of $219 million in new or expanded facilities, and growing enrollment by 34 percent to an increasingly diverse student body of 10,000.

What may get overlooked are less quantifiable accomplishments, including the strengthening of critically important partnerships that are best measured by an anecdotal tale such as this: At a heated meeting in the fall of 2001 in Indianapolis, the usually courtly Hoops went toe-to-toe with the all-powerful Indiana Commission on Higher Education over its stranglehold on funding. After suffering through an error-filled presentation by commission staff that resulted in a decision to veto a proposed engineering program, Hoops blew a gasket. He publicly criticized the commission’s decision with a sharp retort — “You can cover a pile of manure with perfume, but you still know what’s under it” — then vowed to mobilize community leaders to get the decision reversed.

By the time the next school year was underway, the commission had relented, and the first class of undergraduate engineering students had enrolled in USI’s newly renamed Pott College of Science and Engineering. The degree program, proposed by the university because of a strong demand for locally trained engineers, was expected to draw 100 students at its peak. Today, more than 300 students are enrolled, with many involved in a co-op program that places them in real-world work experiences with area employers.

Hoops isn’t a man given to gloating. Instead, he credits local legislators and business and community leaders who came to his aid with a force-of-nature-like fury. “This is a truly remarkable community,” he says. “We often talk about the things we haven’t gotten done yet. What we should be talking about is what happens when this community gets behind an idea. They do it in a way I’d never seen before.”

What Hoops had seen before were university communities that hadn’t undergone the kind of fight for existence that had transpired here. Educated at Purdue University with a doctorate in audiology and speech sciences, he had taught at the University of Michigan and served in administrative roles at various research universities before accepting an appointment as a vice chancellor at the University of Mississippi, known as “Ole Miss” for having been chartered as the state’s first university in 1848.

When he arrived in Evansville in 1994, the University of Southern Indiana had been independent for less than a decade and was the state’s smallest and youngest public university. That it existed at all was a credit to the tenacity of local visionaries responsible for transforming it from what had been a small branch campus of Indiana State University that had opened in 1965. Hoops’ predecessor, David L. Rice, had overseen USI’s birth and played a key role in the contentious fight with powerful politicians in Indianapolis for its independence. Under Rice’s 27-year tenure, student enrollment grew from 400 to 7,400. After Rice announced his retirement in late 1993, the city’s morning newspaper warned that he’d be “a hard act to follow.”[pagebreak]

But the university’s trustees were convinced Hoops had the mettle to take the institution into a new era with its expanded mission. As Bruce Baker, who was chairman of the search committee at the time, recalls, the trustees were impressed with Hoops’ academic resume and his administrative acumen. But Baker says they were also convinced he had the chops to fight for the university. They knew, for example, that a decade earlier, Hoops had resigned from his job as president of South Dakota State University after running afoul of then-Gov. Williams “Wild Bill” Janklow, a rough-and-tumble political strongman who expected the state’s public universities to do his bidding. The end came when Janklow ordered Hoops to fire a professor who had made political statements Janklow didn’t like. Hoops refused and then resigned rather than be fired. Hoops later described the incident as “a good experience,” telling an Evansville Courier reporter at the time: “I’m convinced that if you’re not willing to put these jobs on the line once in a while, you shouldn’t have them.”

Nothing quite so dramatic has happened during Hoops’ tenure at USI, but it’s not been dull. Hoops made local headlines a few years ago when he turned down a request to remove some paintings of nudes that were hanging in a hallway in the Liberal Arts Center on campus. After reviewing the paintings, he sided with the chairman of the art department and left them there.

While that pleased some liberals on the campus, he’s irritated them, too, with his defense of academic freedom. When the USI College Republicans decided to stage a protest against affirmative action by holding a bake sale in which they offered the same cookie at different prices depending on the buyer’s race and gender — white males were charged more than twice the price a black female had to pay — a protest ensued. Some universities, in a bow to political correctness, had banned similar events, but Hoops refused to follow suit, citing freedom of speech. “I didn’t like what they had to say,” Hoops says, recalling the incident, “but I wasn’t going to stop them from saying it.”

And it was Hoops who brought a controversial proposal to the trustees last fall when he asked them to extend the employee benefits program to same-sex domestic partners of faculty and staff, reminding the trustees that USI was the only four-year university in the state that had failed to do so. After some heated discussion, the trustees tabled the proposal.

That Hoops has been willing to challenge the trustees at times doesn’t surprise Bruce Baker, who served for 18 years on the board of trustees. He characterizes Hoops as a man of candor and conviction who devoted considerable energy to working with the trustees to grow the university and lay the groundwork for more to come. In what may be the ultimate compliment, Baker likens Hoops to the legendary Herman Wells, an educational visionary who dramatically expanded the size, scope, and reputation of Indiana University during his 25-year tenure. “What Herman Wells did for IU, Ray Hoops has done for USI,’’ says Baker. “When we hired him, he knew we were a university with potential for great things, and he made those things happen.”[pagebreak]

Hoops doesn’t want to retire from a job that he describes with great affection. “It’s been a love affair,” he says. “I don’t want it to end.” Nor does the university. Late last fall, after Hoops told trustees of his plan to retire as president before he turned 70, they asked him to take on the title of chancellor and to devote himself to raising money for the university.

He’s already begun to transition into the job, opening an office in Downtown Evansville at Innovation Pointe. The high-tech, small-business incubator that is one of more than a dozen community-based programs that USI manages or has partnered with as part of its mission (dramatically expanded under Hoops) to be actively engaged in developing economic, cultural, and educational opportunities in Southwest Indiana.

When Hoops talks about the university’s future, under his newly named successor, USI Provost and Vice President Linda L.M. Bennett, he does so with what he admits is envy. “The strides this university will make in the next 10 to 15 years will dwarf what we’ve done so far,” he says.

That’s a remarkable statement, given all that’s been accomplished. On his watch, major building projects have arisen on the campus, including several new classroom buildings, four new residence halls, a new art center, and a library named for his predecessor. The number of students who’ve graduated from USI has risen from just over 11,000 in 1994 when he arrived to nearly 27,000 by 2008. The number of undergraduate majors has increased to 60, along with 10 master’s degree programs, and the first program at the doctoral level, the Doctor of Nursing Practice.

Of pride to Hoops is the fact that the USI student body is becoming increasingly diverse: Students from 39 states and 50 countries now attend. Just as significant, he says, is USI’s ability to remain true to its original mission of serving the needs of Southwest Indiana: Seventy-four percent of USI alumni have stayed in Indiana after graduation, and 82 percent of that group reside in Southwest Indiana.

What Hoops foresees for the future includes bricks and mortar; still to come, for example, is the expansion of the University Center, the doubling in size of the fitness center, the construction of a beltway loop that will route traffic around campus, and a new $30 million business and engineering center.

Hoops is ready to do whatever he’s asked to support those projects and others to come, but it will be someone else at the helm. He likes the idea, he says, of leaving with a sense of accomplishment. “I’m not ready to go. I’ve not lost my enthusiasm for the people or the place,” he says. “But I decided years ago that when it came to work to follow this rule: Don’t do it past the time you are doing your best.”

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