Summer 1998
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TCU Magazine "Cover Story"

Top frog

Chancellor-elect Michael R. Ferrari -- who puts the pedal to the metal on July 1 -- knows where he's been... and he knows where he's going, too.

By David Van Meter

RADIO-TV-FILM senior Cheah Chun-Wei saw it in the man's eyes.

At the March 26 press conference where Michael R. Ferrari was announced as TCU's ninth chancellor, Cheah was one of about 100 students who braved a media swarm to catch the first campus glimpse of Ferrari and his wife of 33 years, Jan.

"I just had to see it, and it was there," Cheah said. "I know he'll be a good chancellor." Of course, he had seen that look before, four years earlier. Fresh from Malaysia, Cheah had missed freshman orientation and, on the Saturday he went looking for answers, the campus was deserted. Almost.

He searched two floors of Sadler Hall and had arrived on the third when he saw, as he describes it, "an older, slightly balding man." The man offered to help, escorting Cheah to the Student Center and eventually directing a staff person to see that he received the tour and information he needed.

"Everyone was looking at me and this guy, and I couldn't figure out why," Cheah said. "He told me his name was Bill Tucker.... Only after he left did someone tell me he was the chancellor."

Chancellor Michael R. Ferrari

Born: May 12, 1940

Bachelor's in social sciences, master's in sociology and doctorate in organizational theory and behavior, Michigan State University

President, Drake University, 1985-1998

Provost, Wright State University, 1983-1985

Visiting scholar, Center for the Study of Higher Education, University of Michigan, 1982-83

Interim president, Bowling Green State University, 1981-1982

Provost and executive vice president, Bowling Green, 1978-1981

Vice president of resource planning, Bowling Green, 1973-1978

Acting provost, Bowling Green, 1972-1973

Coordinator of planning, budgeting and institutional studies, Bowling Green, 1971-1972

Acting chair, department of administrative sciences, Kent State University, 1970-1971 Assistant to the director of residence life and resident hall head adviser, Michigan State, 1966-1968

Assistant to the dean of men, University of Cincinnati, 1965-1966

Teaching positions, professor of management, Kent State University; professor of management, Drake University; professor of management, Wright State University; and professor of management and sociology, Bowling Green State University

Drake accomplishments:
-- Increased the academic profile of the entering first-year class from a 22.5 ACT and 3.1 GPA to 25.5 and 3.5, respectively

-- Increased the endowment from $14 million to $85 million

-- Raised $130 million in Drake's first major fund raising drive, Campaign for Drake, ending in 1994

-- Initiated $50 million in new construction and facility improvements in libraries, law and legal services, science and pharmacy, teacher education, performing and visual arts, athletics and recreation, landscaping and parking

-- Established a "computer in every residence hall room" program and computer-enhanced curriculum


So what did Cheah see in Ferrari?

Maybe the same thing TCU Trustee Denny Alexander saw. Chair of the search committee that went through eight months and 100 candidates to reach Ferrari, Alexander said at the press conference that "TCU has been blessed, and now I believe it has been blessed again."

Or perhaps it was closer to what Elena Hicks, director of freshman admissions and also a search committee member, experienced.

A little background, Hicks hears her first name pronounced all sorts of ways, no matter how many times she repeats it. Alayna. Ellena. Elenia.

Hicks and seven other search members met with Ferrari for the first time at the Worthington Hotel last fall. "We spent three hours with him," she said. "When I saw him a couple of months later at his first formal visit to campus, I went up to him and was about to introduce myself again, and he said my name before I could--'Elena, how's it going? How is admissions?'

"I guess I expected him to remember my face, but to remember my name, the correct pronunciation of it, where I worked, what I did, that impressed me." But Cheah merely received a handshake, a hello and a 17-second conversation. What could he have possibly seen in such a brief meeting?

Executive understatement?

Aristocratic benevolence?

No, Cheah said.


THE MONONGAHELA River gave life to the once-red-hot Pittsburgh steel industry, swift waters floating more freight and coal to the Iron City than any river its size. Sitting here in The Grind, the campus coffee shop in the basement of Reed Hall, Michael Ferrari--he prefers Mick--sips his joe and remembers his childhood memories of the rusty-brown water he loved as a kid and the blue-collar community anchored at its banks, his Monongahela hometown.

Ferrari's drinking decaf, mind you; the 58-year-old spends 45 minutes on his treadmill each morning and keeps a schedule that outperforms the effects of a double espresso. That pace has only quickened. Try being an outgoing president at one institution ("If Drake is so great that I should support its $190 million campaign, then why are you leaving?") and an incoming chancellor at another ("So tell us your plans for TCU, in detail, for the next 10 years, and how are we going to achieve them?"). Ferrari talks about the dual role, but doesn't seem affected by the added stress. Wife Jan said it usually takes something "monumental" for her husband to even raise his voice. "Flare-ups" in the Ferrari household, she says with a smile, are reserved for her.

"Jan and I go back to that part of the a couple of times a year," said Ferrari; his mother and older brother, a retired engineering executive from Penn State, are still there, and Jan's mother and sister are there, too. "It has changed dramatically, the coal mines and steel mines have mostly closed down, but there's a goodness of the people that never goes away. I've always been mindful of my roots; people who taught me, motivated me, have always been terribly important to me."

Ferrari's grandparents emigrated from northern Italy to Monongahela.

Italians are new to this country, his coal mining grandfather told him. We've got to do our very best, to excel.

"And you're not going to be in a coal mine," Ferrari finished. "That was his story to me as a little boy."

Ferrari's father and mother--he worked at a steel mill, she at a business forms company--continued the tradition. "Whatever one's socioeconomic status, there was this environment of love and healthy motivation to be the best you could be," Ferrari said. "It was a preoccupation instilled by my grandfather and parents and then by me. "My parents told me I was going to go to college. Very few in the community had gone, but I had the opportunity to rise and do whatever I wanted to do with my life.' "

And Ferrari did. At age 9, he landed his first job, a newspaper route. He sang soprano in his church choir. He never missed a day of Sunday School in 12 years and has the perfect-attendance pins to prove it. He became a superb tennis player. He played the trumpet, forming his own band (the Downbeats) and was regularly called on to play Taps for military funerals. And he was valedictorian and student body president of Monongahela High School.

Ferrari's parents often worked late, which at times left the preparation of the evening meal to young Michael. That kitchen introduction has translated into "chef" on Ferrari's list of hobbies. An Italian food aficionado, he makes his own pasta, sauces and pizza (the guy even has his own manicotti maker). Drake converted its hamburger shop into "Ferrari's Corner," highlighted by the president's own sauces. One night a week, the Ferraris must have pizza or some other Italian dish.

"The secret of pizza is in the dough, the herbs you put in it," Ferrari said. "That makes the difference. From the time I come home, prepare the dough, allow time for it to rise, to the time we sit down at the table, I can make a pizza in one hour, tops."

Ferrari went to Michigan State on an academic scholarship and to play in the school's marching band. It was about that time, too, that he began writing letters to Jan, whom he had been "just friends" with in high school. The two were married after Jan's nursing school graduation in 1964.

Ferrari was a Methodist for the first 19 years of his life. He converted to Catholicism at Michigan State. Today, he and Jan, a Presbyterian, have settled as strong Episcopalians. "Having that faith perspective in my life, I believe, has given me a much greater degree of stability, confidence, optimism," Ferrari said, "and a much more ecumenical view.

"I generally feel that we're all imperfect, we all have frailties. . . but that we're all trying to do our best, too."

Jan said her husband also believes that everything happens for a reason. And perhaps it does:

Ferrari earned three degrees from Michigan State. His 1968 doctorate focused on organizational theory and behavior. His thesis was a comparative analysis of university presidents and corporate CEOs. And his grad professor was renowned American sociologist W. Lloyd Warner.

The greatest life you can have is to be a professor of a university, he told his student. That's the top.

And he added: Never become a college administrator.

Ferrari smiles and sips his coffee.

"I don't know if things always happen for a reason," he said, "but some jobs were meant to be."

FOUNDED in 1881, Drake University was in 1985 a college in need of confidence, said Drake Prof. Myron Marty, Anderson Professor of History chairholder.

Following a 20-building expansion period from 1946 to 1966, the school languished under the 13-year leadership of Ferrari's predecessor; faculty wanted a president who would let the university catch its breath, Marty said, and that's what they got. The four years before Ferrari arrived, the school's enrollment of 5,000 had dropped 1,000 students and picked up a $3 million deficit. It operated on a meager $40 million budget and was backed up by only a $14 million endowment. The neighborhood around the campus was decaying and the university itself was dispirited.

"We were in pretty bad shape," said Marty, who served as dean of arts and sciences during most of Ferrari's 13 years. "Had Mick not arrived, I would have cut my losses and gotten out of town while I still could."

Ferrari arrived at Drake with impressive credentials. He had served as provost at Wright State in Ohio from 1983 until he left for Drake. He had been a professor of management and sociology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and later its provost and interim president. He also taught at Kent State and was there the day four students were fatally shot by overzealous National Guardsmen. "Indescribable," he told one Fort Worth reporter, "to see students shot who had been in your class the week before..."

Ferrari was seasoned when he arrived at Drake. Over the next 13 years, he would become even wiser.

--His first year, Ferrari determined Drake had too many colleges for a school of its size. Within a year, he "restructured" the university into six colleges, saving $500,000 annually in salaries and operating expenses and eliminating no academic departments. "He is very good at decision-making processes," Marty said. "He makes what don't seem like great big decisions along the way result in the lack of need for making the huge decision that everybody knew needed to be made." Marty apologizes for the confusing answer. "I call it consensus-building. By the time the university's colleges were actually consolidated, it had become a non-issue." He laughs. "I'm not even sure we had the Board's approval to do it."

--Also in Ferrari's first year, the Drake Bulldogs football team, competing in Division I-AA, were 1-1 and about to play Iowa.

Drake lost 58-0; for a school that spent more than $1 million a year on its football program and faced a looming deficit while putting fewer than 7,500 fans in the stands per game, that was the last season it would huddle in college football's scholarship division. Ferrari moved the team to Division III; today, the Bulldogs are among the top non-scholarship programs in the nation.

--In 1990, it was discovered that a Drake assistant basketball coach had written a history paper for one player and sociology papers for two others in the fall of 1989 and had paid a tutor to type them. Players were also allowed to make unlimited long-distance calls. Ferrari quickly fired the coach and launched a full investigation. The NCAA called Drake's situation "unique"--no doubt, some Horned Frogs would disagree--and withheld penalties in light of Drake's swift action to correct the situation.

"It undermined the values of the place," said Ferrari of his toughest time at Drake. "I will always play by the rules. You can't compromise that in a university setting because when you do, it puts into question everything else that university stands for."

--He balanc-ed the school's budget for the first time in five years. When Ferrari first arrived, the American Association of University Professors gave Drake faculty salaries its lowest marks. Today, those marks are among the highest for comprehensive institutions.

--It should also be mentioned that in Drake's current $190 million campaign, Drake law graduate Dwight Opperman pledged a $50 million gift last year, the largest by any individual to any university in 1997. "I've tried to express my gratitude for the important role this institution has played in my life," he said when his gift was announced. "As a result, it's not been difficult for me to step forward and challenge the Drake family to achieve the possibilities Dr. Ferrari has outlined for us." Opperman isn't the only one vouching for Drake's 10th president.

"We were really ready for some aggressive leadership, and that's what Mick brought," he said. "As we say around here, Mick may not stand very tall--he's only 5-8 I think--but his stature on the campus and in the community is very, very tall."

FERRARI'S measurements haven't begun to be stretched here in Fort Worth, at least not until he takes office on July 1. The student who served Ferrari coffee didn't even know he was the incoming chancellor.

"Wow," the student said with a stunned grin, declining to be named. "At least now I know what he drinks."

Other students will know soon, too. Ferrari's plan is to meet students one by one, or at least group by group. His open-door e-mail policy was a hallmark at Drake. He hopes it will be at TCU, too.

"Students [at Drake] know that when I come in each morning, that my e-mail is the first thing I look at," he said, "and they know that before I leave each day, I clear them out again."

However, Ferrari doesn't substitute virtual conversations for actual ones. He invites students in to hear their concerns and sends them in the right direction for answers he can't give. He held regular meetings with the student newspaper editors at Drake and wants to do the same with those putting out the TCU Daily Skiff. "I'm sure there will be times when I'll pull my hair out--how could they say such a thing!--but I do like to have that relationship with them."

Ferrari also plans monthly dinners at his home, the guest list comprising different students, faculty and staff for each gathering.

"The idea," he said, "is to get people together and to get them talking and to get them listening as well."

Ferrari will be attentive, too.

"I want to find out what is so special about TCU," he said. "What really sets us apart? Why do students study here, why do faculty and staff invest their entire professional lives, and why do alumni stay involved?

"I know TCU is a major research and teaching university with the friendly atmosphere of a smaller college, but that also describes Drake University. That is also SMU and other universities of our type.

"What is TCU going to be known for in 2010? What is our strategic mission and vision? To what extent is that vision shared by all constituents of the university? And how does TCU increasingly contribute to the economic and cultural vitality of the greater Fort Worth community?

"I know a lot of energy and initiative exists in these areas already, but how can we build on what has been started?"

Ferrari, for one, is ready to figure that out.

"I've spent most of my life trying to understand how to structure leadership, communication and motivation--all of which lead to high productivity, heavy involvement, and a greater degree of satisfaction," he said.

"A good chancellor is a good leader, sharing with others and helping them build a strong organization. . . and providing the resources, atmosphere, environment and spirit necessary to achieve our dreams."

Ferrari's eyes shimmer with, what? Perhaps the same sincerity Cheah saw. "Much of what happened at Drake was people simply rallying together and believing in themselves and the institution," said Ferrari, deflecting credit.

"That's the best part of this work, helping others build something special for which they can be proud. At Drake, it was a lot of hard work marked by a few failures--the difference being that we stood up and moved forward again.

"I'm eager to work with the entire TCU community to make sure we continue to move forward as well."

First Lady

JAN FERRARI knows who she is, and always has.

Ms. Ferrari demurs from making such statements. Good thing Mr. Ferrari doesn't when talking about his wife of 33 years.

"When she makes a commitment," he said, "it runs very deep, especially in regard to family."

They have two grown children. Daughter Elizabeth is 30 and a former New York ad professional. She and her husband Jim, a bond trader, live in Chicago where she devotes her day caring for the family's first grandchild, 2-year-old Vera. Son Michael is 27, works for an ad firm in Des Moines and is single.

Jan and Mick both attended the same high school in Monongahela, Penn. Mick, three years older, left for Michigan State in 1958, and it was about that time when letters from him began arriving in Jan's mailbox. The two were married in 1964 after Jan received her R.N. degree from Presbyterian University Hospital in Pittsburgh. They have rarely parted from each other's side since.

"Mick and I are a team," Jan said. "We attend musical events, athletic events, alumni activities because it's important in the life of the university, and we share in them equally."

Jan worked as a nurse for 20 years until Michael became president at Drake in 1985. She doesn't expect her TCU role to differ much from her involvement at Drake. "I always knew our life together would be in academia, so being the wife of a chancellor is something I'm very comfortable with.

"I believe in Mick. . . after 33 years of marriage, you begin to think what the other person thinks. We've become so much alike, it's scary at times."

Jan plans to volunteer her nursing skills in the community; her first day in Fort Worth, she toured Cook Children's Hospital and hopes to help there. She also plans to "start a new book group with friends I've yet to meet."

But her primary passion, she promises, will be TCU.

"I've only been here four days, but the community feels like Des Moines, and the people are similar, very gracious and welcoming," she said. "And what I have found so overwhelming is the affection for the University that people have. There's a definite warmth that is absolutely pervasive. I look forward to becoming a part of that." Give her time, though. She's not quite there yet.

"The first time I saw Mick doing (the Horned Frog hand signal), I didn't know what it was.

"I thought he had lost it."