By DAVID DUPONT
BG Independent News
Outgoing Bowling Green State University President Mary Ellen Mazey admits that when she arrived on campus six years ago, she ruffled some feathers.
“In the first few years a lot of people criticized me,” Mazey said in a recent interview.
She looked at the campus and where it was and where she felt it needed to go, and took action.
That meant a reduction of some 150 positions, three quarters of which were vacant.
It meant tearing down the Popular Culture house, a move that still rankles some on campus. That became the site of the new Falcon Health Center, built, owned and operated by the Wood County Hospital.
It meant injecting the school colors, orange and brown, into all the buildings as a way of addressing what she was told was BGSU’s lack of school spirit.
Mazey, who came to BGSU in July, 2011, is retiring Dec. 31. This was her first presidency, and she says, her last. She’d spent three and a half years as provost of Auburn University. She had served as dean of the college of arts and sciences at her alma mater West Virginia University and before that at Wright State University. She also took leave to work for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development during President Bill Clinton’s first term. She started her academic career teaching at the University of Cincinnati, where she received her doctorate in geography.
That previous experience, especially at Auburn, shaped her approach to her work at BGSU.
She wasn’t a stranger to controversy. At Auburn she had to return a large donation to the Koch Brothers at the faculty’s insistence. And she merged the economics programs, a move she still gets asked about.
Coming to BGSU, she said, “I used the Auburn model.”
That model puts the quality of education at the core. It places a greater focus on national rankings.
She emphasized recruiting and admitting “students who can be successful here” and retaining them so they graduate. That involves engaging them more in academics through study abroad, undergraduate research as well as internships and co-ops.
“It’s about engaging this generation of students in their learning in many, many different ways depending on their disciplines,” Mazey said. And “insure a strong career when they leave.”
That approach has been become part of BGSU’s DNA in the past six years and has borne fruit. BGSU and its programs pop up on national lists, from being best for veterans to being one of U.S. News and World Report’s best public universities.
Student retention from first to second year has improved, and administrators told trustees in December, they are optimistic they’ll achieve the goal of 80 percent retention in fall 2018.
Mazey wasn’t looking for a new job when the BGSU position opened up. While she was interested in being a university president, she wasn’t ready to start applying. Someone recommended her to the search firm looking for candidates for BGSU, and she wasn’t sure at first she wanted to leave Auburn.
For one thing, when her husband, Bruce, was being treated for the cancer that claimed his life in fall, 2010, Auburn “was the most supportive environment you could have.”
When she was first contacted by BGSU she made it clear: “If this is a position you need to have a spouse, I don’t have one, and I don’t intend to have one.”
That proved not to be an impediment.
One advantage she brought was that as a dean at Wright State, she had been involved in the management team when the first union contract with the faculty was signed. And she was there for the next two.
Negotiations at BGSU were at loggerheads, when she arrived.
What Mazey found was a faculty that was 10th in the state in compensation. “I’m a pretty simple lady,” she said. She realized that “you hired too many, and you can’t pay them well enough.”
Positions, most vacant, were cut, and salaries were raised. A union contract was reached. When the second contract was reached, the negotiations were amicable. David Jackson, the BGSU Faculty Association president throughout this time, has credited Mazey, and her insistence on regular face-to-face meetings with him, for the change in climate.
Mazey also faced the issue of the health center located in the College of Health and Human Services building. The college had a space crunch. Its programs were among the fastest growing. She consulted Sheri Stoll, vice president for finance. There was no money to build a new health center, and again she drew on her experience at Auburn.
There the university had collaborated with a private partner to get a new health center. BGSU did even better. The hospital built the Falcon Health Center, which serves both campus and the community.
She added: “We saved enough to do a $14 million renovation to the recreation center.”
Mazey said that she’d been told that prospective students decided to go to other Ohio universities because of the outdated recreation center.
“Students now are very much into health and wellness,” she said.
The health center was just one of several high profile collaborations. BGSU contracted with a private partner to operate the flight school. It attracted the Bureau of Criminal Investigation lab to a campus location.
That has resulted in an explosion of interest in forensic science on campus.
That involved working with state officials including State Senator Randy Gardner (R-Bowling Green). On learning of Mazey’s plan to retire, Garner stated: “I am disappointed to learn that BGSU will be without President Mazey’s leadership as President in the coming year. We have seen meaningful positive change during her time here. From my perspective her involvement with the state and community has been exemplary. I’m pleased she will continue to be involved in a new capacity in helping to strengthen the university as she has done for six years.”
Mazey oversaw extensive renovations to buildings and classroom spaces. Much of the former bookstore space in the student union is now a brand new career center.
Two of the university’s oldest buildings, University and Moseley halls, have been made over. What was once considered an eyesore, South Hall, has been transformed into the Michael and Sara Kuhlin Center, the home for the School of Media and Communication. Classrooms through campus have been updated to be active learning rooms.
“We have academic buildings that are quality learning spaces,” she said
Drawing on an idea she developed at Wright State, Mazey spurred the creation of Bravo! BGSU, an annual spring arts gala.
At Wright State the event brings in $250,000 to support the arts on campus. The BGSU event raised $85,000 in 2017. Mazey envisions it becoming a premiere arts event in the region.”
“It’s been a great ride,” she said of her time here.
Now she wants a more flexible schedule and to spend more time with her two adult sons and their families. The oldest, Bryan, lives in Cincinnati and has three children. He’s an engineer working in G.E.’s aviation division. Newly married Zackary lives in Denver where is he is an assistant general counsel for Nationwide Insurance.
Last year when she was suffering from a lingering illness, the doctor told her all she needed was aspirin and rest. The aspirin she could get.
Described by Jackson as the hardest working person he’s ever met, Mazey admitted she finds herself getting tired. It’s not unusual for her to put in 14-hour days. She’s given most of her 60s to BGSU, now she’s looking forward to her next phase, she said.
Mazey will move out of the living quarters on the second floor of the presidential house on Wintergarden to a home she bought several year ago in Cincinnati. It’s minutes away from her son’s house.
Mazey said the details of her continued role with the university, helping to raise money toward the $200 million comprehensive campaign launched under her watch and assisting with the transition to the new president, are still being sorted out. “I can help them in all these things.”
It’s important, though, that she leave campus. “It’s not fair to Provost (Rodney) Rogers that I be in town” as he assumes the duties as interim president.
Rogers, she said, has been a key partner in her years as president.
“I don’t want to interfere,” she said. “It’s important to have smooth transition.”
(This is the second of two articles looking and the life and tenure of BGSU president Mary Ellen Mazey.)