From the Bridge, The United States Merchant Marine Academy’s internal newsletter, which is published monthly by the Office of External Affairs, recently had the opportunity to spend a few minutes with Dr. John R. Ballard, our new Academic Dean and Provost. Dr. Ballard arrived at USMMA in early Sept. and was installed on Sept. 25. Since then, he has been hard at work getting to know the staff, faculty and Midshipmen. We caught up with him a few days ago to chat about his experience and his impressions of USMMA.
FTB: As you went through the selection process, we’re sure you were given broad guidance on Academy needs for the Dean. Without breaking any confidence, what lies ahead for you?
JRB: When I came here, I made a very clear commitment to a focus on Midshipmen learning and leader development as my two most important priorities. I want to make sure everything that we do moving forward is focused on Midshipmen. I want to make sure we give equal service to learning and to leader development. In the process, I really want to ensure we are bringing in the best quality teaching practices, the best kinds of technology and the freshest views on issues, processes and procedures around the world so that when our graduates move forth and get their first job, they will be capable, they’ll be confident, and they’ll be fully committed to service in the industry and the armed forces.
FTB: One comment we saw on Facebook as you arrived was about your lack of experience as a Mariner. How do you respond to that?
JRB: I acknowledge that I am not a Mariner. I brought this up myself in the interview process with the search officials. I do bring an outsider’s view. I have the benefit of being able to ask why we do things around here, and I think that is very healthy. I have the benefit of seeing the industry with fresh eyes focused on the decades ahead of us. Now, I have the benefit of graduating from another service academy (USNA), and I have the benefit of having spent some useful time at sea, over a year on five different ships, so I am not unfamiliar with the maritime environment, but I think I also come to it with a healthy, questioning attitude about what is right.
FTB: Do you plan on getting underway while you are here?
JRB: Absolutely. I would be underway now if I had more free time. I’m very comfortable at sea and I am looking forward to it. I have some credentials I need to finish applying for and then we are going to find a ship that I can go on so I can see firsthand the state of the industry today. I want to talk to people at sea and understand what their issues are, what their challenges are and what they see the industry looking like in ten years. One thing I would emphasize is that I am not here to educate Midshipmen for today. I am here to educate Midshipmen for an impact ten or fifteen years from now, so we have to have that vision. I’m really looking forward to talking to leaders in the industry, with people aboard ship to see how they view the world over the next couple of decades. I would very much like to also visit Midshipmen engaged in Sea Year and to see them in the shipboard learning environment ASAP.
FTB: Describe your leadership philosophy?
JRB: My leadership philosophy is based in some fundamental, simple things, like leading by example, ensuring effective communications, and driving a team approach to problem solving. My views have been formed by a life-long pursuit of learning, command in both peacetime and in combat, eight years as a dean in three different institutions, and over thirty years of uniformed service. At its core my leadership approach is based on setting the example, enabling subordinates through mission style approaches to issues, and inspiring colleagues and subordinates with a clear and innovative vision for enhancement of the institution over the longer term. Thoughtful, inclusive, but firm decision making, transparency, open communications, equal opportunity and dignity for all are requirements. I believe in modeling the kind of leadership characteristics you believe in every day and being transparent and open with the team about the problems we face. If we encounter a challenge on this campus, I expect to be one of the first ones to be involved. I may not be the first responder, but I will be there, because I believe it is important to be engaged and be involved with what is going on. The other thing that I think is very important for leaders is that we listen. I like the fact that the Maritime Administrator focuses on being a good shipmate and I would start my dedicated good shipmate tour by listening to people. I have learned a lot already; I learn more every day and I look forward to continuing to listen to people while I am here so that I can take on board different perspectives. The final thing I would tell you about my leadership style is that I don’t believe in the word “they.” I believe in taking responsibility. So when someone comes and tells me “they” made this policy or “they” did this to me…, well at this point, I am “they;” my response will be framed in terms of how we will engage as shipmates to find best solutions.
FTB: When you arrived, we had a parent on Social Media express their hope that you would engage with the Midshipmen. Is that on your agenda?
JRB: I have spent an hour or so every other day since I arrived specifically listening to Midshipmen. I listen to them on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and on Monday afternoons. And, I have spent considerable time in classes as well. I now have nine or ten different files of recommendations, questions, and rumors from Midshipmen, all requiring some attention or action, just since I arrived. So yes, I also think it is very important to listen to Midshipmen. Frankly, the Midshipmen don’t always have the best perspective on issues that have their attention, but they are one of our most important customers, so understanding how they see the world is very important to me. These sessions also give me a chance to bring things to the faculty and ask why we do the things we do - which I mentioned before is important to me. And it gives me a chance to see the world through the lens of the Midshipmen. I’d also mention that I live here on campus, so every day, in everything I do, I see and talk to Midshipmen. And I think that is very important. My wife and I are both thrilled to be living on campus, we are excited to be completely immersed in what the Midshipmen are doing, saying, need or want, and that is exactly as it should be.
FTB: Provost is a new title for us. How would describe your duty as the Provost, and how does it square with the Superintendent’s overall responsibility for the Academy?
JRB: First of all, the Superintendent is responsible for everything that happens or fails to happen here at the Academy. The Provost on the other hand is supposed to be the individual who runs all the learning and development processes at the Academy and makes sure to operate effectively together to educate and graduate the very best. While many colleges and universities have different structures, the basic definition of the Provost is the senior academic officer on the campus. I always translate that to a different title: I am the Chief Learning Officer at Kings Point. Therefore everything I do every day is devoted to that single task. The Superintendent has a more complex task in that he has to deal with broad external stimuli and sectors of government, our great alumni, industry, and all kinds of other constituencies, but I can focus principally on the learning process that is driven by faculty, staff and students.
FTB: You recently became the chair of the Academic Priority One Committee in the Strategic Plan. That plan has been described as the roadmap for modernizing the Academy and priority #1 calls for wholesale review of our academic structure and processes. Anything you’d like to share vis a vis the Strategic Plan and how you intend to move forward with your priority?
JRB: It does specifically require us to do a wholesale reassessment of everything in the Midshipman learning environment. From stem to stern, from admissions to graduation, and movement down the alumni pipeline, we want to look for efficiencies, we want to weed out redundancies, we want to maximize opportunities and we want to provide – where possible - additional learning opportunities for Midshipmen. But, changing course in an academic environment is sort of like changing course of large ship at sea. When you have a lot of way on, she doesn’t move quickly at first, but she moves with a lot of power once she starts moving. So we are going to push a few degrees on the heading as we go to a new direction to make sure we get it right and avoid shallows. I don’t really anticipate radical change here. We have already found efficiencies, we’ve already found some gaps, and we’re already knitting together more effectively the various requirements that we have to meet. We have an advantage and a disadvantage at Kings Point. The disadvantage is we are trying to do many, many good things for different constituencies like the Department of Transportation, MARAD, the Code of Federal Regulations, the U.S. Navy, industry, and our Middle States accreditors – all in a rapidly transforming world. On the other hand, we’re really lucky that we only have few degree programs and we are the standard setters in those programs, so we are simply trying to make the connections among our core competencies as Mariners and commissioned officers as solid and as high quality as we possibly can.
FTB: What have you seen so far and what are your initial impressions?
JRB: As far as initial impressions: Thank God for Midshipmen! We have some of the most fantastic young Americans on this campus. Anybody who doubts the strength of this nation should come here and walk around this campus. Watching them and seeing their potential brings tears to my patriot’s eyes. I do have some concerns about our teaching tools and technology and I’m really focused on maximizing teacher effectiveness in the classrooms, but I have to tell you I’ve been in quite a few classrooms already, completely unannounced, with no prep and I have been very pleased. I’ve seen energy, I’ve seen commitment, I’ve seen technical expertise, and I’ve seen many good teaching practices - I am motivated by that. I guess the last thing I would say is I’m really glad to see that the larger staff that brings the faculty and Midshipmen together on this wonderful campus is so fully engaged, fully supportive, and full of great people. We’re very, very lucky with the support we have.
FTB: You have spent time in the military and in higher education, what is the most interesting place you have ever visited?
JRB: Can I mention more than one? I’ve have had some very diverse experiences. I have lived and taught in Asia, in Oceana, in the Middle East, in Europe and in North America. One of my most interesting challenges was being the foundation professor of defense studies in New Zealand, a country that has very unique culture, a fantastic blend of native Maori and British culture. Next was a stint as the Dean at a brand new college in Abu Dhabi. In this case I was teaching Arab students, only Emiratis. Being able to deal with the very, very different cultural outlooks and being able to teach them and to develop in them an awareness of our global complexities was a completely absorbing and enriching experience. I would also say that I served in Fallujah in Iraq and was responsible not only for helping plan the assault, but also for rebuilding the region in 2004 and 2005. So from a complexity perspective, from a completely different challenging perspective, that is something that has affected the way I think about things. I’ve seen people have their lives destroyed and have to rebuild completely and do so with great pride and dignity, so there is something about the dignity of every human being that is just amazingly powerful to me.
FTB: When you aren’t being Dean Ballard, what is your favorite thing to do?
JRB: My wife Rose and I love to travel. We love to go with our daughter to watch our granddaughter compete in all manner of things; she is a student-athlete at the University of Maryland, learning to be a veterinarian. I enjoy staying current in world affairs and also like to run. And, of course we have a dog named GG that everyone will see around campus….
FTB: Bonus question: Anything you’d like to add?
JRB: One last thing. I’ve had two careers that I think helps me in my job. We produce Merchant Mariners here and we provide an important source of Armed Forces officers. That resonates with me because I did spend half of my life in the military. I initially left active duty as a senior field grade officer in the Marine Corps, transferred to the reserves and went into the academic world full time. But, because of 9/11, I was mobilized and called back to active duty three times; I eventually retired after group command in Iraq and staff service back in the Pentagon. Having done both a military and an academic career, I think that the ability to see two very different kinds of career paths, two different professions has been very beneficial for me. These differences have allowed me to understand more about the changing nature of professional ethics and leader development in the U.S., and why we are different than other countries in our approach to leader development. I’m proud of my military background and my professorship. This broad base helps me make better strategic decisions and comes into play every day
Coffee or tea? Coffee
Pretzels or chips? Chips
Dogs or cats? Always Dogs
Hamburgers or hot dogs? Hamburgers
Football or basketball? Football
Fly or drive? Undecided