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 ….
Our “local” paper, the Indianapolis Star … has very little coverage of what is going on even in Indianapolis, other than the occasional sensational crime, much less elsewhere in the state (as you know from your recent visit, Muncie is not that far away).
To be fair, the Star is doing a reasonably good job on some environmental issues, but it is telling that the environmental coverage is essentially funded by a grant from a charitable trust—without that grant, that coverage would not exist either. But coverage of local and state “meat and potatoes” issues is cursory at best.
I’m putting down a marker for ongoing coverage in this space: the crucial importance of local journalism, the economic pressures pushing it down, and the rapidly increasing experimentation in a search to buoy it back up.
Also: If you’re looking for an extremely skeptical local view of recent developments, which presents the Ball State University/Muncie Community Schools interaction as a “coup” and as the latest manifestation of “Muncie’s Oligarchy,” you can check out the Muncie Voice.
In my first Muncie post, I mentioned both Robert and Helen Lynd’s famed sociological study of the city, Middletown, from 1929, and a 2004 book about Muncie’s African American citizens who were largely left out of the Lynds’ work. That later book is The Other Side of Middletown, edited by Luke Eric Lassiter, Hurley Goodall, Elizabeth Campbell, and Michelle Natasya Johnson.
A reader whom I’ve known for years, and who has family ties in Muncie’s African American community, writes to recommend the Other Side book, and to add:
The problem with those famous Middletown studies is that they did what Whi’ Peepo so often do: they erased/ignored us. They wished us away.
Po’ White Folk have found themselves in the same box of late. But instead of forming common cause with Black Folk, or asking us: “Hey, how’d y’all survive a couple of centuries of this treatment?” they lost their shit. (Sorry, it’s coarse language, but it’s the most precise way to convey the point, really.) They’ve become meaner. They’ve retreated further into those old, tired myths about “The True America.” Blech.
Anyway, Black Folk lived and worked in Muncie. Maybe y’all can wander over to “the other side of (middle)town” and see for yourselves.
I last went there decades ago … My father left for many good reasons. I’m glad he acted on them.
More to come on this front. Thanks to these and other readers.
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.
“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 axis of the linkage is the local public-school system, known as MCS, for Muncie Community Schools.
For decades, the schools had been a classic example of a distressed industrial area’s vicious cycle of decline. Over 35 years, the MCS enrollment fell by more than half. This chart, from a Ball State presentation on the future of the schools, shows the pattern.
Part of the change was from deindustrialization and a shrinking number of households with children in the area. But as the chart shows, about a third of students eligible to attend the community schools have chosen to go elsewhere: to private schools, religious schools, charter schools, or other options.
Since state funding for schools in Indiana depends heavily on enrolled-student head counts, the cycle of decline became self-accelerating. (Years ago, I wrote about the effects of the same pattern in Michigan, with the Holland schools.) Fewer students means less money; less money means cutbacks, school closures, and fewer programs; cutbacks (etc.) drive students away from the schools; even fewer students means even less money.
My story about Holland involved a public-school system whose leaders were then navigating the way out of the cycle. The MCS leaders seemed to be navigating their way right over the cliff. Starting with the financial-crash year of 2008, the schools operated with heavy deficits, totaling more than $35 million in 11 years.
In early 2017, the system’s CFO resigned after news broke that some proceeds from a big school-bond issue had been used to cover operating deficits, rather than for repairs and investments (as reported by StateImpact Indiana here).
Schools were closed; teachers were laid off; academic-quality ratings fell. Finally, in December 2017, the state of Indiana declared the Muncie schools (like those in Gary) to be a “distressed political subdivision,” and put them under direct state-government control, through an emergency manager.
The following month, in January 2018, Geoffrey Mearns, then less than a year into his Ball State tenure, made a surprising proposal on Ball State’s behalf. He said that the university would assume responsibility for the city’s schools, transferring them from the state’s emergency manager, if the structure of the school board could be reconstituted. The announcement was enough of a surprise that, in initial news accounts, many officials said they couldn’t comment, because they hadn’t yet seen the plan. (For instance, from the first-day news in the Ball State Daily: “‘I was caught off guard because I had no idea the amendment [authorizing the switch] was in the works,’ said Rep. Sue Errington, D-Muncie. ‘I think [Ball State is] making a very nice offer. But it has been sprung on us.’”)
A plan like this—for a university to run the whole local school system—had never been tried in Indiana, or nearly anywhere else in the country. The closest and best-known parallel would be Boston University’s management of the Chelsea Public Schools in Boston, from the late 1980s to 2008. (An Indiana Public Radio show examined the lessons, plus similarities and differences). According to the chairman of the Board of Trustees at Ball State, the Muncie project was the first time a public university had assumed responsibility for local schools. (Boston University is private.)
The plan’s acceptance in Indiana was the result of extensive deliberations through the first half of 2018. These were deliberations by the state legislature, which agreed to turn over responsibility to Ball State; by the Ball State trustees, who agreed to accept responsibility; and by a wide variety of groups within the community that would be affected. The legislative and budgetary details are more complex than I can begin to present here. (If you’re interested, I commend to you: Indiana Public Radio in January 2018; Inside Higher Ed in March; and then the Muncie Star Press; Indiana Public Media; and the Muncie Journal in May. Links in these stories will lead you to more.)
“I was talking with a state senator about the plan,” Mearns told me in Muncie. “After listening for 15 minutes, he said, ‘Don’t do this; run away; stay as far away from that school system as you can.’ After another 15 minutes, he said, ‘You’re still crazy. But you have to do this.’”
How is it all working? In the spirit of “showing our homework,” I’ll say that Deb and I haven’t yet been inside the schools, and we will return to learn more. I am sure there are complaints and contradictions, as well as progress.
But from the outside, here are two aspects of the project so far that seem worth broader notice.
One is the systematic process of civic engagement that led to the selection of the new school board, whose seven members you see below:
The legislation authorizing the switch-over said that two of the appointments would be made by the Ball State president—but one from a list of three candidates proposed by the mayor, and the other from a three-candidate list proposed by the city council. The other five would be appointed by the Ball State trustees, from nominees proposed by the university president.
The university put out a public call for these nominations. It said it would be looking for diversity in race, gender, age, and working experience, and that priority would go to people actually living in town. It received 88 applications, the great majority from people living in Muncie. The university winnowed them down to a panel of 20 finalists, who answered questions at a two-hour public forum last June.
The seven members eventually chosen are: a special-ed teacher with school-age children, the YWCA’s executive director, a lawyer and former head of the Ball State University Foundation, a local banker, a Ball State official (who directed the geothermal-energy project mentioned before), a pastor, and a former state-court judge. Five men, two women; five white, two black; six of the seven attended Muncie Community Schools.
I met with board members for an hour last month in Muncie, and asked each of them why they’d decided to apply for this post. “I couldn’t not throw my hat into the ring, because the challenge is so important,” the lawyer, Mark Ervin, said. “If you have a chance to make a difference, you take it. You don’t have that many chances.” Brittany Bales, the special-ed teacher, had taken her young children out of the Muncie schools but brought them back. “It’s a mirage that it’s better somewhere else,” she said. “It’s more diverse and interesting within MCS.”
The other striking initial aspect of the project is the tangible local support it has generated. The new university-led school structure has raised more than $3 million in local donations to the schools, starting with $1 million each from two different Ball-family foundations and around $250,000 each from three local banks.
To emphasize the obvious for now: I don’t know how this project will pan out, and neither do the people pouring their effort and money into it. The former judge on the school board, James Williams, told me, “We have a long way to go, but we’re all pulling in the same direction. We’re still in crisis, but we’re making progress.”
But even while the outcome cannot be known, the inventiveness and effort seem worth notice outside Indiana. (As a local-media point: Every stage of this transition has been covered by the Indiana press, but as far as I can tell, the Ball State/MCS project has never appeared in national papers like The New York Times or TheWashington Post.)
I thought of what I heard from Susana Rivera-Mills, who came to Ball State last year as its new provost. She and her husband, a concert musician, had been in Oregon when recruited to Muncie. She is originally from El Savaldaor; her husband, from the northern California coast—in both cases, very far from central Indiana. But “we felt the sense of life, the energy, the anticipation for something new,” she told me. “We couldn’t imagine not being part of what was going on.” With all normal allowances for boosterism I can still say: discussions like this gave me a different view of life in Middletown than I had before going there.
This is the fourth installment from the “vein of gold” road trip that Deb and I took along Indiana’s I-69 corridor last month, in the company of friends from New America–Indianapolis and Indiana Humanities. The previous installments are here: about Angola, about Fort Wayne, Part One about Muncie, and about the new Our Towns journey as a whole.
(“Road trip,” for a journey by small airplane? We’ll be back to airborne travel soon.)
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.
Muncie is another longtime manufacturing center in this most manufacturing-centric of all states. It has about 70,000 residents and is the subject of one of the most famous works in American sociology: Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture, by Robert and Helen Lynd, which began in the 1920s. Middletown was Muncie; Ball State University, in Muncie, now has a Center for Middletown Studies, which among other projects runs a civic blogging site called Everyday Life in Middletown. (A book called The Other Side of Middletown, about the Muncie story from the perspective of its African American residents, came out in 2004.)
In the world of commerce, Muncie is associated with the Ball family, of glass-jar fame. If you’ve ever seen a classic American glass jar of jam or preserves, you’ve seen the swirly script Ball logo. What became the Ball Glass Manufacturing Company started in Buffalo, New York, in the 1880s. It looked for new premises after a fire destroyed its Buffalo factory in 1886.
In those days, natural gas was being discovered in Indiana, so the Ball brothers moved to Muncie for its cheap gas supplies (for their energy-intensive glassmaking business), and over most of the next century were the dominant business force.
The Ball Corporation moved its headquarters to Colorado more than 20 years ago, but the mark of the family remains all over town, from the name of Ball State University (which started out as a teachers’ college in the late 1800s and was recapitalized by the Balls around 1920) to a number of charitable foundations to historic structures, museums, statuary, and public arts. This brings us to the world of pop culture, where Ball State enjoys the glow of one of its prominent alumni and benefactors: David Letterman.
Here is the summary of what we learned in Muncie and at Ball State.
Specific local action toward a global goal: Ball State University is the biggest single enterprise in town, and also the biggest energy consumer. Starting 10 years ago, a Ball State official named Jim Lowe began exploring possibilities of geothermal energy as a power source for the campus. In the years since, the university has drilled thousands of “boreholes” on campus, and installed more than 1,000 miles of piping, for geothermal-energy transfers. (Earth’s baseline temperature heats water pumped through the system in the winter, and cools it in the summer.) The system is said to be the largest of its kind in the United States; Lowe told us that it would reduce Ball State’s carbon footprint by half.
“We find history repeating itself,” a Ball State publication wrote recently. “The Ball brothers came to Muncie to reduce costs for their glass business by using ‘free’ energy in the form of natural gas pulled from the ground. Now, the university they founded will save $2 million annually in operating costs by using a different form of ‘free’ energy pulled from the same ground in thermal energy.”
Universities as civic actors: Everyone knows about “town-gown” separations, where a college or university has a prickly arm’s-length relationship with the community where it happens to be placed.
Everyone also knows about the classic “college town,” a settlement that hangs on mainly thanks to the business a university brings in.
Deb and I have become more and more interested in the “university hall as city hall” model—that is, a relationship in which a university’s leadership decides that it shares responsibility for the surrounding community’s economic and civic development (as opposed to simply wanting to exercise control over local affairs).
We’ve seen examples of this, as we’ll describe, in places like Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire has become a major civic-convening force; in nearby Kenosha, Wisconsin, through the emerging convening work of Carthage College; in Wichita, Kansas, where Wichita State University is playing a central economic and technological role; in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, with the involvement of the University of Southern Mississippi; in the much larger city of Phoenix, where the efforts of Arizona State University have had an effect statewide and around the country; and in a number of other locales.
In Muncie, the town-gown relationship was historically separate enough that when the Lynds set out their criteria for a typical American Middletown, they said it should not be a university town—and they thought that Muncie qualified.
Now that is changing, in a dramatic way. The change involves the seven people you see below. In Muncie Part Two, coming tomorrow, more about the next big point: how a university has decided to involve itself centrally in civic affairs, and the surprising project it has undertaken within the town.
The former president’s 2015 backers, in their own words
Now that Donald Trump’s presidency is over, how do the Americans who supported him at the beginning of his political run feel about his performance in the Oval Office? I put that question to 30 men and women who wrote to me in August 2015 to explain their reasons for backing his insurgent candidacy.
Among the eight who replied, all in the second week of January, after the storming of the Capitol, some persist in supporting Trump; others have turned against him; still others have lost faith in the whole political system. They do not constitute a representative sample of Trump voters. But their views, rendered in their own words, offer more texture than polls that tell us an approval rating.
After growing up in a family that never lied, I spent decades being off-puttingly truthful.
When I was a child, my dad invented a game that I loved. Wherever we went, he’d predict what strangers were about to say or do. We’d walk into a store and he’d point at the salesman and say something like, “Watch this. When I tell him how much I’m willing to spend, he’ll immediately show me something more expensive.” The salesman did exactly as Dad had prophesized. When Dad took me to my first concert, he told me the musician would ask the audience how they were feeling tonight and, when everyone cheered wildly, would respond, “I can’t hear you!” It wasn’t long before the musician spoke those exact words.
It felt like magic, like Dad was telling the future or reading minds, so I asked how he did it. Most people follow a script, he said. I asked him why and I remember him replying, “Because they’re afraid that if they say what they really feel, people won’t like them. And they’d rather be liked than be honest.” I knew then that I wanted to be honest, regardless of the consequences. I stuck to that for the next 25 years. And there were consequences.
Donald Trump did not merely lie to exaggerate his accomplishments, or smear his opponents. For Trump and the Republican Party, lies were a loyalty test. To reject Trump’s lies or exaggerations, even if they contradicted prior assertions by the now-ex-president, was to express disloyalty, the only Trump-era sin that was unforgivable by his faithful. This allowed the president to fashion for his supporters alternate realities whose tenets could not be questioned, such as his false allegations of voter fraud.
President Biden is inheriting one of Trump’s pet projects.
The headquarters of the United States Space Command was supposed to be based in Colorado. Since then-President Donald Trump revived the command in 2018, the state had been its temporary home, and last February, when the search for a permanent location was still on, he had teased that the current arrangement could win out. “I will be making a big decision on the future of the Space Force as to where it is going to be located, and I know you want it,” Trump said at a rally in Colorado Springs last February. “You are being very strongly considered for the space command, very strongly.”
The Space Command is not the same thing as the Space Force, which was created in 2019 (and which, by the way, is not the same thing as NASA, either). The Space Force trains service members, some of whom serve under Space Command. But in Trump’s mind, they are wrapped up together, as one of his signature accomplishments. Space is cool and flashy, and who doesn’t love Mars? When Trump mentioned the Space Force at a rally, the crowd erupted in cheers. A new Space Command headquarters would, in theory, help cement part of his legacy—Trump, the president who made space great again.
In the aftermath of the January 6 riot, extremists have become obsessed with the federal agents who might lurk among them.
Updated at 9:15 a.m. E.T. on January 25, 2021
Judging by the actions of those who stormed the Capitol, far-right extremists don’t fear arrest. But they do fear one thing: glowies.
During the Trump administration, many far-right groups’ main concern was figuring out how to recruit more people to the cause. But as federal law-enforcement officials continue to round up people suspected of involvement in the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, and Joe Biden’s administration promises a crackdown on white-supremacist and anti-government radicals, extremists are on the verge of a crack-up, posting widely and worriedly about spies in their midst—“glowies.” That’s the term far-right groups use to describe people they suspect of being federal law-enforcement agents or informants infiltrating their communication channels, trying to catch them plotting violence, or prodding them into illegal acts.
The attempted coup reshaped the debate over then-President Donald Trump’s attempts to steal the 2020 presidential election, focusing both opponents and defenders on the insurrection itself and what role he played in inciting it. Now out of office, Trump is facing a second Senate impeachment trial. But as blockbuster reports in three newspapers over the weekend imply, January 6 was not the only or even necessarily the most important example of Trump’s attempts to hang on to power despite losing an election.
Britain’s COVID-19 death toll has risen above 100,000. But, if it is successful, the country’s vaccine drive may leave a more lasting memory.
Updated at 2:15 p.m. ET on January 26, 2021.
Britain has passed the grimmest of milestones: 100,000 people dead from COVID-19. This appalling tally is higher than anywhere else in Europe, and almost twice that of Germany, the biggest country on the continent. By one measure, Britain is now the worst-hit G-7 nation relative to its size.
There is simply no escaping the reality that the country has suffered a catastrophic failure of governance. On March 17, six days before Boris Johnson ordered Britain’s first full national lockdown, his chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, told members of Parliament that, based on modeling provided to the government, a “good” outcome over the course of the pandemic would be if deaths were kept below 20,000.
Some of the scenes from this year’s 14-day, 4,751-mile race through Saudi Arabia
On January 3, a group of more than 300 competitors departed from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to begin the 43rd annual Dakar Rally: a 14-day, 4,751-mile off-roading adventure held entirely in Saudi Arabia once again. The race used to be held in Africa, until 2008, when unrest in Mauritania forced organizers to move to South America, where it was hosted until last year. The vehicles—which include specialized cars, trucks, motorcycles, and quad bikes—finished their broad loop through Saudi Arabia, returning to Jeddah on January 15.
Election changes such as ranked-choice voting and nonpartisan primaries are popping up across the country—and are already upending national politics.
Lisa Murkowski did not waste time, and she did not mince words. Just two days after former President Donald Trump provoked an insurrectionist mob to storm the Capitol on January 6, Alaska’s senior senator told her local newspaper: “I want him to resign. I want him out.”
Murkowski was the first GOP senator to demand Trump’s exit after the deadly riot. The speed and bluntness with which she spoke out against the former president surprised her allies, who saw in her words the first reverberations of how Alaska voted in November. Murkowski wasn’t on the 2020 ballot, but in passing a ballot measure to change the way the state elects its leaders, Alaskans effectively gave their long-serving senator a fresh infusion of political freedom: She no longer needs to worry nearly so much about a conservative primary foe defeating her next year. “I think we’ve seen the result of it already,” former Alaska Governor Bill Walker told me.
A devastating incident in Afghanistan shows the perils of relying on Special Operations alone to fight the nation’s battles.
Both the Trump and Obama administrations relied heavily on highly trained Special Forces units to keep Afghanistan from collapse. The strategy has kept recent episodes of the 21-year Afghan War out of the public eye, but it is failing to stabilize the country and is straining the United States military’s elite troops, who serve back-to-back combat tours without an end in sight and disproportionately give their lives in service of a war the public knows almost nothing about.
When Kunduz, a major city in northern Afghanistan, fell to the Taliban in 2015, U.S. Special Forces were dispatched on a secret mission to help Afghan commandos recapture it. Under-resourced and unprepared, the soldiers found themselves in the midst of a pitched battle with conflicting orders. The story of how it led to one of the U.S. military’s worst disasters in Afghanistan shows the perils of relying on Special Operations alone to fight the nation’s wars.