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Executive Profile

Coming Home

Bill Muse, the new ECU chancellor, returns to the state
where his management style and academic vigor were born

By Kevin Brafford

The next time state officials need a spokesperson to testify about the virtues of calling North Carolina home, they would do well to look up Bill Muse. True, East Carolina University’s 10th chancellor has only called Greenville home since Aug. 1, the date he arrived to replace the retiring Richard Eakin. But in reality, Muse and his wife, Marlene, have kept their eyes on our state since he came to Appalachian State University for three years beginning in 1970 as the founding dean for the university’s college of business.

No doubt the companies that produce the self-adhesive address labels count William V. Muse among their best customers. When he moved to Boone at age 31, it already marked his fourth professional stop. Excluding ASU, there have been seven permanent change-of-addresses since then.

If the Muses are to move again, it won’t require turning in their North Carolina license plates. While the chancellor demonstrates the energy of a 30-year-old, he turns 63 on April 7. Had he said no to ECU’s offer and remained at Auburn University, where he had been president since 1992, he likely would have retired when his contract expired last month.

“That was the track I was on,” he says. “I had achieved what I set out to do at Auburn and I knew that my contract was about to run out. The average tenure for a president or a chancellor at a major university is four or five years, and I had been there for nine.”

He and Marlene already had North Carolina on their mind. “Of all the places we’d live, North Carolina most appealed to us,” he says. “We like the people, we like the geography, we like the contrast between the mountains and seashore, and we like its aggressive leadership. It offers so much.”

Then ECU offered more. “We had good people in our mix of candidates,” says Greenville attorney Phil Dixon, who chaired the chancellor’s search committee. “But Bill impressed everybody, and we must have impressed him. The bottom line is, I think we got lucky.

The frequent packing of the bags that Muse has done in moving from one college town to another might indicate to some a sense of discontent or restlessness. Neither could be further from the truth.

“I’ve always thought of myself as a builder — an organization person,” he says. “Almost every job that I’ve accepted has been to take over an organization and attempt to take it to a place that is different from and better than it presently was. Once you accomplish those goals, you move on to other challenges. And in some cases, such as the experience at Appalachian, it was building something from scratch.”

Of all Muse’s stops, it is the time in Boone that he remembers most fondly. “The years at Appalachian State shaped my administrative career perhaps more than any other,” he says.

Muse was an associate professor of marketing at Ohio University when he heard about the ASU post. “I knew so little about it when I went there — in fact, when I first heard of Appalachian, I thought it was in West Virginia.

“The school was still thought of as a teacher’s college, and I was intrigued by the challenge of starting a business school. Looking back, I can’t believe I did it. Here I was, a department head at Ohio University; I had just turned 31 and I had tenure. I’ve often said that when you’re that age, you think you can conquer the world. That’s what I must have thought.”

So he, Marlene and their three young children left security for insecurity, the Midwest for the Southeast and old friends for new friends. Starting from scratch, Muse had to develop a curriculum, hire faculty, organize a school and develop a relationship with the state’s business community.

“I probably worked harder than I’ve ever worked in my life,” he says. “I was a one-man department there for awhile. I came down the mountain, went up the mountain, came down the mountain, went up the mountain. Everyone that I brought in for an interview, I had to pick up at the airport.”

Muse’s vision shaped what is now considered one of the top business schools in North Carolina. He recruited business executives from throughout the state to spend a semester on the faculty teaching courses in their area of specialization, and he required each student to spend a semester as an intern.

“It had a dual purpose,” he says of the students’ internships. “It got the school welcomed and brought recognition, and it gave the students real experience and a leg up on getting a job. Up until that point, Appalachian State was not a place where a business would go to hire an accountant, a banker or a marketing specialist.”

Muse’s business trips led to pleasure trips. He’d see an area in the state new to him while out recruiting, then hurry home and tell Marlene of places that the family should visit. “We always went to Wrightsville Beach when the children were little because we had a friend who had a house,” Marlene says. “We got to see a lot of the state, and we absolutely loved it.

“And we loved the people, because they were especially nice. Bill took to them and they took to him. That’s the way it’s always been with him. He makes friends easily.”

Muse was born in Marks, Miss., a little town in the northwestern reaches of the state known as the Mississippi Delta. His father was a minister in the Church of God and his mother a homemaker charged with raising seven sons who were 26 years apart.

Bill was the youngest, and even as a child he grew accustomed to changing addresses. “My father was a wonderful man and very definitely a community leader,” he says. “He’d get a new church about every two years — that was normal for his work back then — and we’d have to move. It certainly was an interesting way to grow up, and I wouldn’t change it for anything.

“Remember, this was the 1950s in rural Mississippi — you had to drive long distances sometimes just to find a paved road. For a lot of my growing up, we didn’t have electricity or running water. By any standard, we had a very low income, but that’s just the way it was in that part of the country.

“Even so, my brothers and I always had something to eat, we always had something to wear and we always had a roof over our heads. In those towns we lived, there always was a great sense of community. Everyone was working to make a living for themselves — by farming, primarily. There was a lot of pride.”

Most kids find one or two outlets for their energy, and Muse’s was baseball. “I used to drive my mother crazy,” he says, “because I’d get an old ball and throw it against the house acting like I was fielding grounders.”

On many a summer’s night, an AM transistor radio was his best friend. He’d slowly turn the dial in search of a big-league game, hoping to find out the latest on his beloved Detroit Tigers and their All-Star third baseman George Kell, a native of nearby Swifton, Ark. — “just across the Mississippi River from where I grew up.”

Muse excelled as an infielder in high school and played a couple of seasons as an undergraduate at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, La. Between his freshman and sophomore years, he was invited to a St. Louis Cardinals’ two-day tryout camp. “I was going to be the next George Kell,” he says, “but I knew after the first day of camp that I was outmatched. I was a good fielder who could hold on to most anything I could get to, but I didn’t have any speed or power.”

Despite that disappointment, this story has a good ending. Muse kept track of Kell, who followed his Hall of Fame career with a stint as one of the Tigers’ radio broadcasters. One weekend each summer, Muse flies to Detroit to take in a weekend series. A few years ago, he came across Kell’s biography at an airport bookstore. “I bought it and finished reading it in a couple of days,” he says.

When Muse returned home, he wrote Kell a letter, “telling him how much I admired him. I got back from him a three-page handwritten letter, and he also sent me several mementos — a couple of baseball cards, some autographed things.

“He said, ‘If you’re ever in Arkansas, come see me.’ Well, I was at Auburn at the time and one year we were playing Arkansas in football in Fayetteville. He and his wife met Marlene and me for dinner in Little Rock. I don’t remember when we ate; I just remember that we talked baseball for hours.”

They’re still penpals, writing each other several times a year. “I have a picture in my office of the two of us together,” Muse says. “I’m friends with one of my heroes. How neat is that?”

Muse still catches the Tigers in Detroit every summer and takes in any baseball game he can find. And he adorned a uniform as recently as 1989. That was the year he turned 50, and for a present, his wife and children sent him to Lakeland, Fla., to the Tigers’ fantasy camp.

“It was something he’d talked about wanting to do for years,” says Marlene, “but he never would have spent the money on himself. So we did it for him.”

Muse considers his George Kell baseball cards among his most prized possessions. He owns another card as well, and this one stays in his wallet. It’s of Bill Muse, replete in a Tigers’ uniform. On the card underneath his name where a player’s position is listed, Muse’s reads “President.”

Muse graduated from Northwestern State in 1960 with a degree in accounting. He entered the University of Arkansas that year and earned an MBA in business administration. He stayed at Arkansas to work on his Ph.D., teaching business communications courses along the way, and his dissertation topic provided a glimpse of his genius. One of Muse’s professors, Robert B. Hay, was touting the concept of the universal style of management in organizations outside of business.

Muse had been a member of Tau Kappa Epsilon (TEK), and he convinced Hay and TEK to commission a study on the effectiveness of management practices in social fraternities. “In those days when you talked about managing something, everyone thought you were talking about business firms,” Muse says. “They didn’t think that other organizations could and should often use the same kind of practices.”

The fraternity, which was headquartered in Indianapolis, paid his salary and travel expenses as he toured 60 university campuses in the Southeast and Midwest during the 1963-64 academic year. “No one had ever done this,” he says. “I had six different criteria and I judged them on 33 different measures of management — it was very sophisticated statistical analysis at that time.”

He returned to Indianapolis the following summer to compile his data. Not surprisingly, he found that social fraternities that were managed better were more successful. And to make a good year ever better, he fell in love and married Marlene Munden.

She was the secretary to the executive of TEK, and every two years the fraternity hosted a national conference that culminated with a dance. “In those days, and this seemed so innocent, you could arrange dates,” she says. “My boss said that was one of my duties for this dance, and I was too dumb to know any better.

“This was about 400 boys in all, and I found girls at Butler University and other places. Anyway, I got them all dates and I never even thought about getting myself one. My boss asked me didn’t I want to go, and who with, and I thought of Bill Muse — he didn’t have a date either. So I asked him to go with me.”

They were married in the fall of ’64 and headed South when Muse accepted a position as an assistant professor of industrial management at Georgia Tech. “I thought we’d stay in Atlanta forever,” Marlene says. “I wasn’t used to moving much, but it was normal for him. When opportunities came, we followed them.”

That meant a move to Athens, Ohio, in 1965 when Muse went to work as an assistant professor of marketing at Ohio University. Promotions came quickly, as did children — first Amy, then Ellen, and lastly Van.

The next move was Boone in 1970. Three years later, he began a six-year stint as dean of the college of business administration at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. During 1977-78, he served as a presidential interchange executive assigned to the office of education in the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

Muse was recruited to Texas in 1979 as dean of the college of business administration at Texas A&M University, leading the fifth-largest business school in the nation. In 1983, he was promoted to vice chancellor for academic programs and planning for the Texas A&M University System. After a year as the A&M System’s chief academic officer, Muse was named president of the University of Akron, a post he held until being elected president of Auburn in 1992.

Running Auburn University, with 22,000 students on the main campus and 7,000 more at a campus in the state capital of Montgomery, wasn’t without its problems. Naturally, that made the job more appealing.

“Race relations were tearing the student body apart, the football program was under NCAA investigation and we were operating at about an $8 million deficit,” Muse says. “There was plenty to be done.”

So he did it. During his tenure, he was credited with successfully managing major reductions in state support, increasing campus diversity, developing a university Honors College and improving faculty personnel policies and relationships. He also boosted private support to the university, leading a capital campaign that raised more than $200 million and significantly increased the institution’s endowment.

As the chancellor at ECU, he’ll face a similar challenge, comfortable as always in wearing hats both as a business man and educator. “The kind of situations that a president of a university encounters are very similar to that of any CEO of any organization,” he says. “Almost every issue that I deal with draws upon my training and experience in business.”

Phil Dixon says Muse’s ability to think outside the box appealed to ECU’s search committee. “He created a program at Auburn called a bachelor of technology degree,” Dixon says. “It used to be that you couldn’t transfer from a two-year technical college to a four-year college. Now, students can get their general college the last two years, which opened up a lot more doors. Given the great community college system we have in North Carolina, we thought that kind of vision would be a great asset.”

Molly Broad, the president of the UNC System, agrees. “Bill brings a wealth of high-level administrative experience accumulated in leading public university settings,” she says. “Over the course of his career, he has consistently demonstrated strong leadership and strategic planning skills, a commitment to academic excellence, and a deep understanding of the special relationship between public institutions and the regions they were founded to serve.”

Dixon says it’s a critical time for ECU, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2007. “Bill’s going to get the chance to build an entirely new medical center campus,” he says. “We have so much room to grow, and we have the resources in which to do it — we’ll have $250 million to spend over the next six years.”

That money will come in part from a five-year major capital campaign that the university will soon launch. Muse has promised to stay at the school until its completion, at which point, “I might want to finally activate those plans for retirement.”

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