Balog Leads Aquinas New Deal

January 28, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — C. Edward Balog is ushering in a new deal at Aquinas College.

Inaugurated as the college’s sixth president last fall, Balog specialized in the Great Depression and the real New Deal as a history scholar. The new deal at Aquinas, which began during Balog’s tenure as provost, includes increased enrollment, a construction program, plans for a new sport and a renewed fundraising effort.

“Our plans are pretty ambitious,” Balog said, sitting in his office in the gracious Holmdene building, the former lumber baron’s mansion that houses administrative offices on campus. “It’s a very exciting time to be connected with the college, I think.”

Balog was born in Ohio, the location of the hospital closest to his hometown of Weirton, W.Va., a steel town sandwiched between the Ohio River and the state of Pennsylvania. The only child of a mechanic and a homemaker, Balog received his undergraduate and master’s degrees from West Virginia University.

As a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois, he had to choose between two loves: American history and Russian history. He settled on American history, which is what he taught when he landed his first job at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo.

“Eventually, we got another professor and I was able to teach some Russian history as well,” he said.

That first job lasted 22 years, the last of them as a dean of the college known for its linden trees.

“I was very happy as a history professor for a number of years. What I really liked about being a professor was being directly involved with the students. That has been really one of the joys of my life. I still get e-mails from students that I had 20 years ago.”

With his first taste of college administration at Lindenwood, Balog realized he liked the work. “I thought if I ever had a chance, I’d like to see if my idea of what academic administration is all about had any validity,” he said. “I got the chance to do it and found I did have some ability.”

Balog decided that to stretch his administrative wings, he would need to leave his comfortable niche at Lindenwood. That job search sent him to Marian College, a Catholic school in Indianapolis, as vice president of academic affairs.

“One of the things I liked about being an academic dean … was that I could have a great role in shaping the faculty, which really shapes the personality of the institution for a whole generation,” Balog said. “That has an impact on students, but it’s much broader than before.”

The arrival of a new president at the college, which changed its name last fall to The Marian University, prompted Balog to once again move his career. That’s when he joined Aquinas College as provost — a post Balog describes as akin to COO — in 2000. He oversaw the college’s academic programs as well as a majority of operations.

When Balog arrived on campus, Aquinas was recovering from a financially difficult decade, caused in part by renovation and equipment costs and the $6 million purchase of the 17-acre Reformed Bible College campus in 1988. The college was forced to take out a loan, make budget cuts, freeze employee pay and shelve plans to build a library.

“There were some difficult financial times in the ’90s. It took a while to come out of them,” Balog said. “We didn't really emerge from that until the early part of this decade.” As reported in documents for the tax year that ended in mid-2006, Aquinas College revenue was $48 million and it recorded a budget balance of $6.7 million.

“At that point, we began to look at where we thought we ought to be as an institution, both academically and physically,” Balog added.

“It was about a 10-year vision. It’s not really accurate to call it a plan, because we didn’t have the details. But we had ideas of where we wanted to go. We’ve been refining those for the last four or five years, so that now we have a strategic plan.

“We took stock two years ago of where we were and decided to try to concentrate on what we did best. What we concluded was that our strongest programs were traditional liberal arts, so that’s where we concentrated our efforts, our resources.”

Three years ago, the college crafted an “integrated enrollment plan” that included strategies for increasing enrollment, particularly traditional, college-age residential students, as well as for retaining students and for raising $4 million for a scholarship and research endowment. The plan appears to be paying off: Last fall marked the third consecutive year of record freshman enrollment, he said.

Total enrollment for fall 2007 was 2,250, according to Marty Fahey, public relations director. That included 412 freshmen, up from 316 in 2004.

Aquinas draws 95 percent of its student population from Michigan, mostly from the western side of the state. More than 50 percent are Catholic. The college, which goes back to 1886, is rooted in the Catholic Dominican tradition.

“We put a great deal of emphasis on recruitment, and we also put financial resources into it,” Balog said. “It was a more refined analysis of what our student base was and an effort to try and increase that, rather than to try to find new markets elsewhere in the country. We're right on target with that schedule. We expect to have that fully completed in 2009, so that by 2010, when the population that's eligible for college in Michigan begins to level off, we should be at our optimal enrollment level.”

He said the college is highlighting what he terms its “signature programs,” such as the bachelor’s degree in sustainable business, which Aquinas was the first in the nation to offer. “I think it is going to be a big area for us. I want the college to be known for it,” Balog said.

He said another area seeing some new attention is basic science education. One of the current fundraising campaigns has already garnered $600,000 from alumni for new science equipment.

“We have a very good record of people going into the health professions, medical, dental, veterinary school. We also have forged an actual working relationship with the Van Andel Institute over the last few years to provide internship opportunities for our students.

“We will never have a major graduate program in chemistry or engineering, but we will have a good, solid baccalaureate program in pre-health professions,” Balog said.

Aquinas employs about 300 people, including about 100 full-time faculty, Balog added.

The vision for Aquinas includes a commitment to renew campus facilities. The postponed new library finally opened two years ago, and now renovations are proceeding to convert the Academics Building space it formerly occupied into classrooms and offices. A new residence hall will get under way this year.

Athletic facilities also are getting some attention, with the soccer field getting $600,000 in ProGrass artificial turf last year in anticipation of launching a lacrosse program in 2009. More plans are being laid for an $11 million to $12 million field house renovation and addition.

“When you put it all together, it’s a pretty formidable list. But we think that there are individual constituencies that we can appeal to for each of these projects, and we feel we have put together a sensible plan that is affordable and will certainly lead us through to the next student generation,” Balog said.

Appointed interim president in 2006 after Harry Knopke announced his retirement, Balog was named to the post permanently last July. His inauguration in the fall reflected the warm relationship he enjoys with the students — including his son, an Aquinas sophomore — and their celebratory “pranks,” such as filling his office with balloons and wearing T-shirts emblazoned with his likeness.

Balog was on the tennis team at WVU and continues to play today. He’s also an avid golfer. An old house aficionado, Balog and his wife, Union High School history teacher Catherine Logsdon, live in a 100-year-old Heritage Hill home. The old Lowe mansion on the Aquinas campus affords Balog’s office a similar historical ambience for a man whose intellectual pursuits turn back the hands of time.

“Aquinas was one of several places we looked at. It had all the characteristics we were looking for,” Balog said. “I’m very happy here.”

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