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What We Saw in Muncie

Ball State University
On the campus of Ball State University, in Muncie, Indiana. Ball State teams are known as the Cardinals, and the school's motto is "We fly." Courtesy of Ball State University

Here is why I think this report from central Indiana matters, for people who don’t happen to live there themselves.

What Deb Fallows and I saw in Muncie, Indiana, is as stark an illustration as we’ve recently come across of a gap with huge implications for America’s civic and political prospects.

  • On one side of this gap (whose existence has been a running theme in this space) is the growing reality of experimentation, freshness, practicality, and often progress in many American communities and regions.
  • On the other side of the gap is the extremely faint national-level awareness of such developments, or what they might collectively amount to in the years ahead.

For now, in two installments, I’ll mention some developments that we learned about on a recent trip to Muncie, Indiana, and that we had no idea of before we visited the town. I will bet that the 98 percent of Americans who don’t live in Indiana have not heard of these efforts either, since as far as I can tell, they’ve rarely if ever been mentioned in the national press.

Ninety-eight percent? Yes: The state’s population is about 6.5 million, and the country’s population is more than 325 million, or about 50 times as great. By the way, this makes Indiana that rare state with a mathematically “fair” representation in the U.S. Senate. One out of every 50 Americans is a Hoosier, and the two senators from Indiana cast one-fiftieth of the Senate’s total votes.

(To illustrate the range among other states: About one American in every 600 lives in Wyoming, and about one in eight lives in California. Each state of course has the same two Senate votes. About one American in 450 lives in the District of Columbia, and they have no Senate votes at all. I offer these numbers not as a veiled complaint: the Washington, D.C., license plate on my car, which bears the District’s official slogan, “Taxation without representation”—now that is a complaint. Rather, these are reminders of the way centuries of migration and changed settlement patterns among the states have affected the fundamentals of constitutional architecture. )


My goal in this first piece is to introduce the idea of activities worth national notice, which usually escape notice because they are happening “out there.” The developments I have in mind from Muncie, in this report and the next, are:

  • a specific local response to a global challenge;
  • a conceptual shift that parallels trends we’ve seen elsewhere;
  • a major institutional and civic rearrangement that is unique in Indiana and has very few precedents anywhere else in the country.

Deb and I will return to Muncie for further reporting trips. But here is Part One of what we’ve learned for now.


We spent time in Muncie in March as part of the I-69 tour through Indiana discussed in these previous posts: one about the tiny town of Angola, one about the big industrial city of Fort Wayne, and one about the journey as a whole. The trip was a combined project of New America–Indianapolis, of Indiana Humanities, and, for the Muncie stop, also of Ball State University.

Muncie Central High School
Mike Rhodes / Muncie Journal

This post is about a development that few people outside the state of Indiana have ever heard or read about, but that has implications for the country as a whole. It’s about a highly unusual approach to a highly familiar problem: the economic challenges of public schools. This news comes from America’s original “Middletown,” the midsize Indiana city of Muncie.

In the preceding installment about Muncie, I mentioned three aspects that surprised Deb and me—and that would have surprised most visitors, given their absence from the national press. One, discussed in the preceding report, was the ambitious geothermal-energy program designed to reduce nearly half the carbon footprint of the city’s dominant institution, the 22,000-student Ball State University.

The other two also involve Ball State’s interaction with Muncie—in a general way, and with a specific and highly unusual new step. This post is about those two moves.


The general step that Ball State has taken is to see itself as centrally involved in the economic and civic development of the city where it is based—rather than viewing Muncie from across the traditional town-gown divide. This is a trend that Deb and I have seen (as discussed here) in other places around the country. Last fall The New York Times had a related story in its business section titled “Universities Look to Strengthen the Places They Call Home.” That story featured East Coast illustrations: the University of Maryland’s role in College Park, outside Washington, D.C.; Drexel University’s role in Philadelphia; and Yale’s in New Haven.

At Ball State, this kind of “civic stewardship” in Muncie has been a central emphasis of the university president who took office two years ago, Geoffrey Mearns, who before arriving had been the president of Northern Kentucky University.

Geoffrey Mearns, the president of Ball State University (Courtesy of Ball State University)

“When they interviewed me for this position, I said, ‘If you’re looking for someone to run a university, I am honored, but I already had a great job,’ ” Mearns told me when I first spoke with him last fall. Mearns grew up mainly in Ohio, studied English at Yale (where he was a track and cross-country star, eventually running a 2:16 marathon and qualifying for the 1984 Olympic trials), and practiced law for more than 15 years, including nine years as a federal prosecutor. He then shifted into university administration with a role at Cleveland State University.

“But I said that if they were interested in involving the university much more directly with the community, that would be very interesting to me, as well.” As a sign of sincerity: Soon after their arrival, Mearns and his wife, Jennifer, donated $100,000 for an endowment to sponsor Muncie Community Schools graduates who would become first-generation students at Ball State.

This kind of interaction would be a change for Muncie, where the university and the city had been for decades co-located but not deeply cooperative. As mentioned earlier, the sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd selected Muncie as the site for their famed Middletown study precisely because it was so clearly a midwestern “factory town” rather than a “college town.” But the shift toward involvement with Muncie is a basic part of Ball State’s current strategy.

“Our University’s future is affected by the vitality and vibrancy of Muncie,” Mearns said in a statement to the Indiana legislature early last year, a few months after he started at Ball State. “In short, our fortunes are linked.” The title of the current Ball State initiative is “Better Together.”

The idea of such a town-gown inevitably linkage is becoming more widespread. The specific implementation in Muncie is practically unique.

The Ball State University campus in Muncie, Indiana
The Ball State University campus in Muncie, Indiana Courtesy of Ball State University

The previous four “Our Towns” posts have been about Indiana: One about Angola and the importance of its relationship with Trine University; one about Fort Wayne and its ambitious reconstruction of a cavernous abandoned GE works; and two about Muncie, first about sustainability programs and then about a virtually unique approach to the long-troubled public schools.

They had a common theme: how surprising it was simply to show up in these towns and hear about what was happening there, since so little (or none) of this news had ever made its way to the national press.

A reader in Indianapolis challenges one part of my argument:

Interesting and informative to hear about Muncie and Ball State. My only quibble is with your first sentence: “This post is about a development that few people outside the state of Indiana have ever heard or read about …. ”

I live in Indianapolis, and consider myself well-informed, and I hadn’t heard or read about what’s going on in Muncie. This is a direct result of the death of local journalism ….