These are challenging times. The political and public focus on affordability is ever-increasing, while student demands for resources, facilities, and amenities appear limitless. Aggravating the situation, this tension often exists in an environment of decreasing governmental support for higher education. In confronting these challenges, board members should look to one of the pillars upon which our great nation was built—entrepreneurship.
Exercising an entrepreneurial spirit requires creative thinking, acting with a burning sense of urgency, and taking measured risks—creating businesses, curing diseases, and developing innovative technology. Board members may exhibit these entrepreneurial qualities in their private lives, and much of university research depends on thinking outside the box. Nonetheless, when it comes to the operation of universities, “entrepreneurial” is not the first word to come to mind.
AGB’s publication Effective Governing Boards lists basic board responsibilities that include guidelines for ensuring the institution’s fiscal integrity while preserving and protecting its assets for posterity. At Ball State University, we used entrepreneurial thinking to balance these seemingly competing interests and develop a new way to provide utility services to campus.
Institutions struggle to keep pace with the deferred maintenance needs of their physical plants. Ball State was no different, faced with four aging coal-fired boilers that needed updating. Rather than just replace our boilers with today’s version of the same system, the board challenged the administration to look at alternatives.
A creative administration came forward with a proposal to use a geothermal system. Naturally, the board asked what other academic institutions had implemented such technology at this scale. The reply? “None, but we believe it will work.” After further due diligence on the risks and the upside, we made the leap.
In 2012, the campus began work on the nation’s largest ground-source, closed-loop district geothermal energy system, the first in academia. Today, we heat and cool 47 buildings naturally, with over $2 million in annual savings. Despite the one-time costs of boring 3,600 holes into the ground and the new geothermal systems, we are now in the black—or green, if you will—and our savings continue to compound.
These operating savings, combined with other entrepreneurial initiatives, made it possible for our board to adopt the lowest tuition increase in 40 years. The system has become a point of pride as we talk to families about the many ways in which we carefully steward tax and tuition dollars.
At the same time, the geothermal system helps protect our environmental assets for posterity. Some in the academic world view entrepreneurship as hostile to the goal of environmental preservation, but our project soundly debunks that myth, allowing us to cut our campus carbon footprint nearly in half.
Ball State has a campus-created and boardaccepted statement on sustainability that moves well beyond a pledge and has become an integral part of our campus community. The geothermal system is just one part of the plan and has played a critical role in our designation as the state’s greenest campus by several national sources.
Building on this success, the university named a chief entrepreneurial officer who was charged with further developing this mindset in every area of the campus, from faculty and students to professional and administrative staff. We also recently established the John H. Schnatter Institute for Free Enterprise and Entrepreneurship to provide opportunities for faculty and students to research and study these concepts. Through these efforts, we hope to develop creative solutions to the challenges that Ball State faces and instill in our students principles that will allow them to be more productive members of society upon graduation.
While there is no secret recipe or silver bullet, this campus-wide embracing of entrepreneurial principles will ultimately create a more effective higher education system. Developing that culture starts at the top: We as board members must strive never to accept the status quo and rather see ourselves as entrepreneurs.