Meet Dr. Deborah J. Curtis: Alumna, educator, advocate
Over the years, phone calls came regularly from headhunters asking her to apply for this or that presidency. She ignored them. She was happy as provost and chief learning officer at the University of Central Missouri. Then last summer, she received a call she found particularly intriguing.
“It was the fact that it was Indiana State that spoke to me. Indiana State holds such an important part in my development as an educational leader. This is where it literally all began for me,” said Deborah Curtis, who began her tenure as Indiana State’s 12th president in January.
Selected unanimously by the Board of Trustees following a nationwide search, Curtis is only the second State graduate to serve as the institution’s president. She earned her doctorate from Indiana State in curriculum and instruction with specializations in secondary education and supervision of instruction. She had been teaching music and coaching volleyball and softball in K-12 schools in Illinois for several years when her fiancé, Lynn, was hired to teach and coach basketball at Paris High School. Casting around for a job in the Wabash Valley, she found a one-year position teaching music at Indiana State’s lab school, filling in for a maternity leave.
“That experience is what led to my decision to earn a doctorate. I really enjoyed interacting with the college students who were doing their student teaching and field experiences at the lab school,” said Curtis.
At the urging of her supervisor, Jim Rentschler, Curtis entered the Ph.D. program. She credits Marvin Henry, chair of curriculum, instruction and media technology at the time, and Wilburn “Bud” Elrod, who chaired her dissertation committee, as two mentors who greatly influenced her time at Indiana State.
“Dr. Henry was highly respected for his book on supervising student teaching which was published a few years before I began my Ph.D. Now in its seventh edition, it is still in use at universities across the country. It was an incredible opportunity to be able to interact with him,” Curtis said.
Elrod guided her through the dissertation process.
“For my developmental level at that time, my first forays into the concept of teaching in higher ed, he was a significant role model for me. It would be hard to match his level of professionalism and the personal attention he gave his students. He was also a wonderful scholar, and he held high standards for the process,” Curtis said.
After finishing her doctorate, Curtis joined the faculty at Illinois State where she proceeded to work her way up through the faculty ranks to the level of full professor before entering administrative roles. After 26 years at Illinois State, she moved to the University of Central Missouri to become provost and chief learning officer. All of those steps helped prepare her when that fateful call came last summer.
“You become the combination of your experiences. Say ‘yes’ a lot. It’s never wasted. With each step, you take with you that experience of having sat in that chair and having been responsible for making the decisions that come with that position. I wouldn’t trade any of those experiences to arrive at where I am today.”
Curtis was also drawn to Indiana State’s mission.
“I think Indiana State has a specific distinctive role in this state. Students come to us because we have established this tradition of high quality and value added, a tremendous value proposition for the quality of the programs that we have. That draws a student population that needs what we have to offer which is an affordable way to access a quality college education that might not be provided to them otherwise,” said Curtis noting that a high percentage of Indiana State’s students are the first in their family to attend college.
“We have great students who come here fully aware that this is their opportunity to be prepared for work and for life, and they are taking great advantage of it. That’s really rewarding to me,” she said.
Her understanding of the transformative impact a college education can provide runs deep. As a first-generation college student growing up just outside of Chicago, Curtis worked in factories during the summer to pay her way through college.
“My job at one plant was to solder two contact points together. Another job I did involved the production of parachute ripcords. Both had very manual components, and I have the scars to prove it. Today, those jobs don’t exist anymore. Robots do them.”
These industry changes mean that today everyone needs some form of post-secondary training. “Indiana State is well-positioned to serve both traditional students and non-traditional career changers. We have faculty and staff who truly care about the difference we make here, not only with our students but also in this community. Everywhere I go, I hear from alumni who talk about the difference Indiana State made in their lives.”
Curtis is also the first female to serve as president of Indiana State, and she understands the significance that brings.
“I am grateful that we are over that hurdle now, and that any woman who is interested in serving as president of Indiana State can perceive that they are equally as likely as anyone else to do so. I think that is what it is about sometimes, perceptions. Perceptions can inspire or they can serve as a deterrent,” she said.
She noted that when she entered higher ed as a faculty member, there were only a small number of women in tenure-track positions. She benefitted from the mentoring of both those women and some of their male colleagues who were supportive of her work and helped her find a space in which she could contribute.
“I had colleagues who believed in me before I really believed in myself. That can make an incredible difference in one’s life.”
One of those mentors was her last boss, Chuck Ambrose, president of the University of Central Missouri. “He was definitely the most innovative leader I have seen. With that comes some challenges, because he rapid fires ideas all the time. Sometimes you take the string and pull it back in, but many times it helps you think of why do we do it that way, why do we have to do it that way and would we be better to try something new,” said Curtis.
In assuming her new role, Curtis praised the Presidential Transition Team for developing a comprehensive calendar of meetings with internal and external groups and individuals that made for a busy indoctrination.
“It has been fast and furious and a tidal wave of everything good,” she said of her many meetings with students, faculty, staff, alumni, legislators and other local, state and national leaders.
“These meetings were, of course, introductory and involved a great deal of listening. Now it is time to circle back and discuss actions and how we can work together to move forward,” Curtis said.
She is particularly impressed with the opportunities that exist for the Wabash Valley. “I get very energized by the possibilities for this region and for Terre Haute to be the hub of activity in the Wabash Valley. There is so much potential here, and I want to be a part of shouldering up with our colleagues in city and county government, business and industry, and not-for-profits to shine a light on what this region has to offer,” she said.
“We are seeking a bigger place for Terre Haute both in the eyes of our legislators in Indianapolis as well as on the national level. We need to attract more business and industry to this area, along with the arts. We have five higher ed institutions in this community, all quite different from one another. That should be incredibly compelling to business and industry to locate here, not just in the ways we can help that industry but for the quality of life we can provide for their employees and their families.”
Curtis also talks about the need to raise awareness of the achievements Indiana State made under the leadership of her predecessor, Dan Bradley.
“I am so grateful for everything Dan Bradley did to strengthen this institution and this community. We have a great story to tell. We just need to pump up the volume,” she said.
Moving forward won’t come without its challenges, however.
“One challenge is the smaller number in population of college-going students. That’s why it is really important for us to diversify our offerings to reach out more to non-traditional students, to online learners, to those 750,000 Hoosiers with some college and no degree. I think Indiana State is distinctively positioned to do that,” Curtis said.
Indiana State also needs to raise more private dollars to provide the “margin of excellence” that extra financial support can bring.
“We really have three sources of revenue — state appropriations for which we are extremely grateful but do not expect to change significantly; tuition, which we must keep affordable especially given the students we serve; and private donations, which we need to grow dramatically. I anticipate spending a lot of my time in front of the legislature advocating for resources and meeting with donors to share our story and demonstrate how they can be a part of it.”
Ultimately, Curtis’ vision for her tenure at Indiana State is to demonstrate that the university is a driving force in transforming the lives of its students, advancing the quality of life and economic development of its community and producing graduates who are well-prepared for today’s workplace.
“I hope people look back and say that this was an era in which we enhanced the comprehensive presence of Indiana State in this region. We strengthened it, it was recognized, and we established the next path for Indiana State as a regional and national leader,” said Curtis.
To do so will require everyone working together. “That is going to require a focus on the needs of the nation, and how nimble and effective we are in meeting those needs. Everybody needs to get engaged in helping us envision that next chapter. It isn’t just one person who is going to put that together. It is really going to take all of us getting to it, and continuing to move forward.”