End of an Era

President Dan Bradley and First Lady Cheri Bradley bid farewell to friends and a campus they made better through a grand vision and nine years of persistent effort.

The walls in the waiting area adjacent to President Daniel J. Bradley’s office bear darkened outlines — rectangles where photographs once hung. Those naked wall panels announce the office is prepping for change. In a few days the remodeling crew will walk in, tear off the 25-year-old wall coverings, paint, and install new carpet. Some of those sidelined photos, now tucked in small-batch, haphazard stacks throughout the complex will return to their places. Others will not. Thanked for their service, they’ll remain in the dugout gradually disappearing into the wisps of history.

The makeover isn’t the only change filling the air, of course. Bradley, Indiana State’s 11th president, will retire in January, and as he begins the final six months of his tenure, many among his staff wonder about the more intangible changes to come.

One of those staffers is Teresa Exline, Bradley’s chief of staff. Once a local newspaper editor, Exline has trod these floors for three decades in various capacities, assisting Bradley, as well as his three predecessors, with their communications needs.

“He is the most transparent president I have ever experienced. He shares a great deal of information with the campus and the general public to explain various decisions and issues, and I think that has been central to his success,” Exline said.

She added that Bradley will spend a year away from Terre Haute before returning to campus as a member of the faculty, a tradition dating back several administrations.

Moments later, the room in Parsons Hall is awash with an exchange of “good mornings.” The office conviviality that surrounds Bradley is sincere. Granted, the intrinsic consequences of leadership can often produce animosity and hard feelings, but in his day-to-day interaction with the people who support him, it’s immediately evident that the genuine feeling in the office is one Bradley has earned over time.

“As a friend I know he was always concerned about me as a person and my family,” said Jack Maynard, provost emeritus and professor in the department of educational leadership. “I experienced some health issues and the loss of a parent during my time as provost, and I personally appreciated his concern for me and his understanding of the issues. He is not my boss today, but he will always be my friend.”

President Dan Bradley works at his desk at Indiana State University.

Approaching the waiting area, Bradley extends his hand. “So,” he says, “you’re here to see just how boring the life of a college president is.” The staff laughs along. The self-effacement is not an act, but in Bradley’s eyes, the other question is also real: “Why do you want to follow me around all day?”

A chemistry professor at the start of his career, Bradley says he moved into administration because “it was the next logical thing. I started as a department chair, then became a dean, and I just kept working my way up.”

Of course, what has happened since he arrived at Indiana State are details we already know.

“In the fall of 2007, our entering freshman class was 1,433,” said Bob Guell, professor of economics. “It now hovers between 2,500 and 2,800. We went from barely 10,000 every fall to more than 13,500. We went from one spring graduation ceremony to two. We went from no air-conditioned dorms (outside the quads) to no non-air-conditioned dorms. We went from the lowest faculty salaries in Indiana to competitive faculty salaries. He changed a 30-plus year culture of managed decline to a new one of realistic, yet optimistic growth.”

Few would fault if he took these final months to savor sentiment. No one would begrudge him if he took longer gazes out the window at the old Quadrangle. Sentimentality, however, can wait. The man is still on the clock.

At 9 a.m., he sits down with current Provost Mike Licari. In a few days, he and Bradley will meet with the Indiana Commission for Higher Education to pitch a new program in general engineering. Not the highly specialized, put-men-on-the-moon sort of thing; rather, the multipurpose variety. Imagine the guy — or gal — at the shop who dreams up, creates and installs the part you need to keep the press operating — but at the community level instead. The stakes, if they can be called that, are not terribly high. Both men know the program is going to fly. Licari comes prepared, his notepad stacked with layers of notes. Glancing at it, Bradley raises his eyes to his provost.

Provost Mike Licari talks with President Dan Bradley in his office.

“Just give me the bullet points,” he says. His statement is not a dismissive gesture. In fact, Bradley absorbs details, catalogs them, recalls them on command. Nuts and bolts details, the kind of data that pushes State along the grand plan. That stuff fascinates him. His breakdown of the contractual distinctions between a “lecturer” and an “instructor” standing as “Exhibit A.” But he abhors the performance art that comes with the job.

The 9 o’clock hour winding down, Licari and Bradley look at what’s next. At all times, Bradley carries a small, blue slip of card stock. A “line-up” card of sorts, detailing his meeting agenda on the hour. It rarely leaves his hand. When it does, it rests no more than a few inches from his fingertips. Sometimes, as he collects a thought, he picks it up and fiddles with it, only to lay it aside. Eventually, the passage of the day will mark itself on the paper as it undergoes a sort of reverse-chrysalis, transforming from a solid, even, square-cornered Monarch into a wrinkled, wilted, light-blue caterpillar.

Setting it aside, he ponders the next item on that list: a meeting with a delegation from Hanil, a small South Korean university, one with which State will conduct a student-exchange program. First comes a signing ceremony with his presidential counterpart, followed by a luncheon with the full delegation.

Staring at his blue card, Bradley turns his eyes from Licari to Zachariah Mathew, associate director of international programs, who walked through the door moments earlier. “When we’re finished here, you can take them?”

Mathew nods.

Moments before the delegation’s arrival, Licari and Bradley fish around the office for business cards.

“The international community still loves to exchange these things,” Bradley explains, pocketing his cards. It was no exaggeration. When the full party jams the office, Bradley and Licari are inundated with the small cards, held at the corners by index fingers and thumbs, the ink facing the receiver, presented with accompanying deep bows and the aplomb of an official state visit. It is Bradley who gets the conversation started. As they chat, Hanil’s president asks about Indiana State’s theology department.

“We don’t have one of those,” Bradley responds. “We do have lots of praying and lots of preaching — but not by the same people.”

By the time Bradley wishes the delegation farewell and returns to his office for a long session poring over his email, half the day had vanished. While the sun’s light fills his office windows with the bright green reflection of the tree leaves beyond the glass, Bradley works his way through his email inbox, anchored to his office.

Besides the physical captivity of his fully booked schedule, the president maneuvers the emotional captivity of the job as well. Unlike virtually everyone working below him — people who can afford an occasional moment of impulse — Bradley has to keep his professional demeanor turned on at all times. When he and Licari chat about a faculty member’s somewhat hostile email, when they discuss a petition signed by almost 100 people to save a set of racquetball courts, when they weigh yet another concern from a student, the president gauges his replies.

President Bradley reviews his schedule.

“We need classrooms,” he says in response to the petition, “not racquetball courts that the students don’t use.”

“I think a lot of people fail to grasp the limited nature of the resources ISU has and so they fail to appreciate the rationale and strategy behind some of the tough reallocation decisions he has had to make,” explained John Conant, economics professor and department chair.

Watching him contemplate many of those decisions brings to mind a page of Sunday morning comics — and the absence of those white, fluffy thought balloons popping up over Bradley’s head, complementing his subtle smirk and letting everyone in on the joke.

With so many seemingly spontaneous anxieties pecking away at him from so many fronts, any moment one would expect him to drop his guard. His guard, however, holds, and the walls, which protect him, also isolate him. Such is the nature of the tightly vaulted life at the top of the hierarchy.

In meeting after meeting, Bradley exercises the mental focus of the trained chemist. Whether he’s with Linda Ferguson as she rattles through a trove of enrollment and budget data, or sitting by Teresa Exline who’s discussing issues that need to be addressed and laying out a page-long agenda for the coming week, he listens.

When he comments, he is always precise. His observations are specific. His thoughts pointed. His opinions, thought out.

“People understand that Dan is a micromanager,” said Guell. “You could tell that from Mars. What people don’t always see is that he is open to compromise as long as he sees that you are working with the best long-term interests of the university in mind. He will work with anyone to find an agreeable path as long as he sees that you have an agreeable destination.”

For now, Dan Bradley continues to lead, to compromise, to break away from the grind of the day and discuss the color of the new office carpeting with his staff. He suggests the sample before them is green. His staff insists it’s gray.

For a moment he ponders, weighing whether to press on and continue the debate. The moment passes, and he shrugs. Widening his grin, he nods toward his office.

Soon, the accolades will come. Eventually goodbyes will accompany hugs and tears. But on this summer Friday in early June, all of that sits a lifetime from here. Right now, more meetings await, and more work must be done.

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