Running Ferris strong

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Ferris President David Eisler runs through highlights of his decade leading the university

BIG RAPIDS — The air has a cold edge to it the morning Ferris State University President David Eisler takes off on a run across campus.

His breath shows up in little puffs as he starts on the four miles required for that day by the Hal Higdon marathon training plan he’s following. Eisler is preparing for the Walt Disney Marathon “Dopey Challenge” in January, which consists of a 5K, 10K, half marathon and marathon run on four consecutive days. One of his two daughters will join him for the marathon.

Even with the busyness and responsibility that comes with leading a university, Eisler, 61, makes time five days a week to run — a relatively new-found hobby he jogged into about four years ago. In his10 years as president of Ferris, Eisler has realized the importance of taking some alone time to clear his head.

“This is my thinking time,” he said. “It’s a great to have some time to clear your head.”

On this frosty October morning, Eisler is off on a running tour of campus and Big Rapids, making stops at locations that mark significant moments in his tenure at Ferris. Prior to being named president in 2003, Eisler was provost and vice president of academic affairs at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. He started his academic career as a music instructor at Troy State University in Troy, Ala. He also served as a dean at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales, N.M., from 1990 to 1996.

“We made the decision that our future is at Ferris,” Eisler said, speaking for himself and his wife, Patsy. “Ferris is going to continue to grow, and our message of a quality education to prepare students for careers is exactly what our state needs right now. This a wonderful time to be at Ferris because there’s a great appreciation for the education we do.”

While running is a recent addition to Eisler’s regular routine, music has been a longtime passion. He earned a bachelor and doctoral degree in clarinet performance from the University of Michigan and his master’s degree from Yale University. He was inducted into the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance hall of fame in 2007.

But all of that slipped to the back of Eisler’s mind during his run, as he instead focuses on the achievements and points of pride that have marked his decade at Ferris.

“People will do amazing things. You just need to create an environment where people have the ability to take their talents and their energy and create things,” he said. “It’s less about what I do and more about what the university does. You try to grow a good team.”

The first stop on his run is the Business Building and Interdisciplinary Resource Center. Eisler’s greatest point of pride in this space is the renovated classrooms and “hallway” connecting the IRC building to the Business Building with a connector that offers students a place to spend their downtime between classes. The IRC building was constructed in 1969, and the most recent remodel — which included the IRC connector — was completed in 2008.

“The idea was to make this a state-of-the-art learning center,” Eisler said. “We built brand new classrooms all the way through. The idea was to create a place that would be a showcase for learning at the university level.”

Most of the buildings at Ferris were built between 1955 and 1970. When Eisler arrived at campus, he wanted to spruce up the white, utilitarian classrooms to make the space more appealing to students and faculty.

“We used paint, new technology, new furniture and sound proofing,” he said. “The idea is we wanted to make the spaces where faculty and students work together the nicest places on campus.”

After the academic-related stop, Eisler is off to a more social location on campus — The Rock Cafe. A $7 million remodel of the dining facility was completed in 2009.

“They created this amazing space that our students use, our university community uses and the Big Rapids community comes here,” he said. “We knew we were creating a place our students would enjoy, but I don’t think we understood how much everyone would come together around food.”

From The Rock, Eisler strides off to the East Campus Suites, LEED gold certified on-campus apartments that were built in 2010, during his seventh year at Ferris.

“Ferris hadn’t had any new housing since the late ’60s,” he said. “We had the idea that we would create some townhouse-style apartments. … This has been very successful and our students love these. When you come to college, this is your home and we want our students to have a nice home.”

Then its off to the new Michigan College of Optometry building, a project that was 37 years in the making and finally completed in 2011. Eisler greets faculty, staff and students along the way, wishing them a good day and joking about swapping his suit for running clothes that morning.

“Optometry has been a part of Ferris since the mid-60s. It had been in Pennock Hall,” Eisler said. “We had this idea that we were going to fund this building and fortunately the state helped us. We created this unbelievable learning space, and it’s an economic driver in our community.”

Eisler is proud of the work the clinic at MCO does with children, low-income people and the general public. The optometry program also has been able to expand the number of students accepted each year with the extra learning space in the new building.

Downtown Big Rapids is the next destination on Eisler’s running route. Once he gets running, he doesn’t like to stop, often picking up the pace to zip across intersections before the stoplight changes. As he runs north on State Street, Eisler notes the strong relationship between the university and the city.

One symbol of that partnership is the Bulldawg statues outside numerous downtown businesses. The “Year of the Dawg” campaign was a Leadership Mecosta class project in 2008. Used as a fundraiser for Artworks, the Mecosta County Youth Attention Center and Leadership Mecosta, businesses purchased the Bulldawgs and had local artists decorate them in different themes.

Eisler sees the dawgs as a sign of the community’s willingness to embrace Ferris.

“Ferris had nothing to do with this, but it was a great example of the amazing community support Ferris has,” he said. “We have a good, strong working relationship between the city and the university because we’re joined at the hip. It’s a pretty amazing thing that people are willing to show their pride in our university and do this wonderful example of the community and university spirit.”

Running from State Street over to Michigan Avenue, Eisler makes a stop outside City Hall in front of a statue Ferris resident artist Robert Barnum and the university welding program created in recognition of the 2008 Festival of the Arts.

Big Rapids held a Festival of the Arts years ago, but it eventually lost momentum. In 2008, a committee revived Festival of the Arts and it has continued to draw community participation in the month-long February festival.

“We restarted Festival of the Arts, and Bruce Dilg has really been the champion of this,” Eisler said. “The idea was to use the university as kind of a center to do something for all the arts in the community. … The Festival of Arts has become a wonderful part of our community.”

From there, Eisler heads south on Michigan Avenue back toward campus. He stops on Oak Street between the Alumni and Prakken buildings at an area known as Helen’s Garden, named for Helen Gillespie Ferris, wife of the university’s founder Woodbridge N. Ferris.

Eisler sees this garden, which was established in 2009 during the university’s 125-year anniversary celebration, as a representation of all the university’s first ladies throughout its history. Patsy was involved in planning the garden, and she has taken an active role in campus life in other ways too. One of her initiatives was starting the First Lady’s Attic to provide professional attire to young women.

“Ferris is our home, and what we do at Ferris also involves my spouse,” Eisler said. “Mrs. Ferris was a gardener. … They think some of the plants are what might have grown in her garden. When Mr. and Mrs. Ferris started the university, this was their life. Patsy worked with the people in Advancement and Marketing to create this to honor Mrs. Ferris.”

Crossing from the east side of campus back toward his office at the Timme Center for Student Services, Eisler passes the construction site for the new University Center, a $33.9 million project set to be complete in 2015. Replacing the 56-year-old Rankin Student Center, the University Center will offer new amenities and a space that’s more inviting to students as well as the Big Rapids community.

The campus clock tower sounds at the top of the hour as Eisler heads into the final stretch of his run, and he knows which block of classes students are headed to next. His mind turns to other points of pride from his decade as a Bulldog.

“I’m really proud of the work faculty have done over the 10 years we’ve been here,” he said. “Over 10 years, they’ve developed 38 new degrees at Ferris. At the same time, they’ve eliminated 23. I think that’s really indicative of what Ferris is about — being innovative, being state of the art and responding quickly to the needs that are out there in the curriculum.”

As Eisler reflects on his decade at Ferris, one of the things he’s proud of also is a goal moving forward — to continue to promote Ferris and build a positive campus environment.

“We want to build up an understanding of the greatness that is at Ferris,” he said. “I think there is a lot of respect for Ferris State University and the education we provide here. We work hard to build a university community where people appreciate each other.”

Arriving back at the Timme Center with a 4.6-mile run under his belt for the day, Eisler still goes “the extra mile,” declining to take elevator up to his third-floor office.

“I’m more of a stairs guy,” he says.

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