Republished from Centralight Summer 2018
The man who grew up to become president of Central Michigan University was born 1,000 miles away inside a Mississippi sharecropper's cabin.
For eight years, George E. Ross has led CMU with a humility and resilience forged from the hardships of poverty and an empathy that stems from the realization that all of us have stories that shape who we are.
Now, as he prepares to step down as CMU's 14th president, Ross shares the story of a life that took him from meager beginnings in the Deep South to Mount Pleasant, overseeing one of the nation's major public universities, its 2,600 employees, 23,000 students and 225,000 alumni around the globe.
Leaving a legacy: Ross' CMU journey in photos.
'We just had to survive'
Ross' father, Eugene, married his mother, Lois, when she was 17 and eager to leave an abusive household. By the time Ross was born on April 21, 1951, there were six brothers and sisters in their small shack in Hinds County, Mississippi, where his father was a sharecropper.
When Ross was 4 or 5, the family moved to Washington, D.C., where his father found work in construction. His parents separated not long after, leaving his mother with the children.
"We just had to survive," said Ross, who helped by delivering newspapers.
As Ross turned 13, his parents reconciled and moved to Flint, where his father drove a city bus. Ross had 11 brothers and sisters by then, and the family was on public assistance.
"We didn't have much, but we thought that's how everyone lived," Ross told Flint's MyCity Magazine in 2015. "We had parents who loved us and taught us through example to work hard."
They expected the children to go to school, and the first thing Ross noticed as he walked into Beecher Junior High was the students.
"In D.C., I could count the number of white students in my class on two hands, the number of white teachers on one hand," he said. "So, when I got to Beecher and saw all those white folks, I wasn't used to it."
Saved by a teacher
He went on to Flint Northern High School, where he took college prep courses and excelled in his work.
His parents separated again his senior year, and his grades suffered as he considered dropping out — just as his six older siblings had done.
But a math teacher saved him.
"I don't know why Miriam Schaefer noticed me, how she figured it out," Ross said. "But she started paying attention, encouraging me and wouldn't let me drop out.
"Without her, I wouldn't be where I am today."
Because of her, Ross was the first of his siblings to earn a high school diploma, and he credits her with changing the course of his life.
He and his wife, Elizabeth, visited 95-year-old Miriam Schaefer in Flint a few years ago and gave her an enormous bouquet of maroon and gold flowers — a small token of appreciation for her influence.
President Ross is always at ease with a group of students.
With Schaefer's encouragement, Ross considered college and chose Michigan State University because he had visited the campus during a ninth-grade field trip.
"I didn't know any chemical engineers, but I'd seen some on a TV show and they looked pretty cool," he said. "I looked it up and saw they made a good salary, so that became my major."
Ross earned a scholarship but lost it after his first year because his grades were too low. He was working multiple jobs on campus to pay for his education, and by his junior year he was having trouble keeping up with chemical engineering while juggling work.
A friend's advice spurred a switch to accounting.
At the start of his senior year in 1973, Ross applied to be an apprentice millwright at Oldsmobile in Lansing, making about $17,000 a year. He worked second shift after class and bought a new car.
"I was very popular," he said.
Two choices, one path
As graduation approached in 1974, Ross began looking for accounting jobs.
The Arthur Young public accounting firm in Detroit offered him a job paying about $11,000 a year. At the same time, he was four months from getting his journeyman's card at Oldsmobile — an achievement that would bump his pay there to more than $20,000.
Ross debated his choices, which stumped family and friends, who thought a skilled trades job at GM with better pay and retirement at 30 years was clearly the way to go.
"I chose accounting because I had worked so hard at it. It took me six years to get my degree," he said. "In hindsight, I think I made the right choice."
Ross worked in accounting until 1986 before taking his finance skills to higher education.
He continued his own education through the years, earning a master's in business administration at MSU and a Ph.D. in higher education administration from the University of Alabama. He participated in postdoctoral studies at Harvard.
Before becoming CMU's president in March 2010, Ross served as president of Alcorn State University, vice president for finance and administrative services at CMU, executive vice president at Clark Atlanta University, executive vice chancellor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and vice president for business affairs at Tuskegee University.
Ross said much of his leadership acumen comes from his father, whom he describes as "the smartest man I've ever known."
"He gave me a lot of sage advice," Ross said. "A lot of life lessons I used to guide my own daughter were learned from my father."
Such as: "If someone is doing well, you pat 'em on the back, let them know they are doing well. When they know they're doing well, they'll do better. If somebody messes up, tell them what they did wrong, show 'em how to do it right, pat 'em on the back and say, 'Go get it done.' When they get it done better, you let 'em know.
"My father didn't write any management books, but that's my style," said Ross.
Faith, illness and a new job
He's always believed in God, and a battle with cancer made his faith even stronger.
Ross had just accepted the presidency at Alcorn State University in 2008 and resigned from CMU, when he discovered bleeding in his gums. The day movers arrived to take their belongings to Alcorn State, Ross was diagnosed with leukemia.
Alcorn offered to hold the presidency for him, and CMU's board rehired him as vice president.
During 18 months of chemotherapy, hundreds of cards poured in from people across the country, letting him know they were praying and pulling for him. Elizabeth taped them on the walls in his hospital room, covering every inch. When he got depressed, she would remind him that too many people were praying for him: He couldn't give up.
"Up to that point, I had debates with people on whether intercessory prayer was real, but there was no medical reason for me to walk out of that hospital," Ross said.
It's been 10 years, and there's been no recurrence.
Leading CMU to meet the state's needs
Central Michigan University under Ross' leadership has cemented its unmistakable focus on students first. He has fueled Central's strong sense of community, and when he's nostalgic about what differentiates CMU, Ross highlights the university's culture, its support of every student and its hands-on learning experiences.
"I've been on campuses around the country, and there really is something special about CMU," he said. "We care. We give students opportunities and learning experiences that help them realize who they are and how much they can impact the world."
What better way to Fire up Chips on a sunny day than accepting the Ice Bucket Challenge.
Ross said alumni tell him all the time that CMU and its faculty and staff changed their lives. "You don't hear that at many universities."
Ross' accomplishments have helped transform CMU. The university is a leader in health care, business and STEM — science, technology, engineering and math. The way students — from traditional undergraduates to working adults — take classes and earn their degrees have expanded. So, too, have efforts to ensure students and families can afford degrees, as Michigan has fallen from 20th in the nation in funding of higher education to 43rd.
During his tenure, CMU:
- Broke ground in April for a $26 million Center for Integrated Health Studies that will allow expansion of such programs as physical therapy and physician assistant. Its facilities will advance an industry-leading team approach to health care.
- Opened a $95 million Biosciences Building in 2017 — the largest construction project in university history.
- Graduated its first College of Medicine class in 2017, with a 100 percent residency placement rate.
- Opened its Education and Human Services Building in 2009.
- Renovated Grawn Hall in 2017 and Anspach Hall in 2014.
- Expanded its Great Lakes research, including $20 million through two grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
- Increased multicultural enrollment to 22 percent among the last two freshman classes.
- Increased investment in scholarships by nearly 90 percent.
- Raised more money than all previous presidents combined by changing the culture of philanthropy at CMU.
Leaving a legacy
Last September, George and Elizabeth Ross donated $1 million to CMU to endow three scholarships benefiting vocal music, accounting and medical school students. It's a level of generosity many said is surprisingly uncommon among university leaders.
"CMU will always have a special place in our hearts," Ross said. "We believe in the students here, and we believe in giving back."
Looking ahead, Ross plans to take enough lessons to beat Elizabeth at golf. Or at least be competitive.
He also wants to spend time with their first grandchild, Jorge Ross Orta, who was born in December and is named after his father and grandfather.
"At the end of my days, I'd like my tombstone to say 'Good husband. Good father. Good Big George,'" he said, referencing the name he thinks he'll have Jorge use for him.
Want a selfie with CMU’s president? Just ask.
Message to students
Sixteen-hour work days are common for Ross, yet he routinely makes time for students — just as math teacher Miriam Schaefer made time for him.
When he talks with them, Ross tells students he's not special.
"I've messed up like everybody else," he said. "Most of my siblings were smarter than me, but they made some dumb decisions, like quitting school, using drugs and alcohol."
He worked hard and tried to do the right thing "even when other people weren't looking," he said.
"You don't think sometimes that it'll work out, but you have to keep working at it."
Ross said CMU alumni around the world have accomplished great things: They sit as heads of major corporations and organizations and are teachers, engineers and businesspeople.
"They have made a difference," he said. "I tell students all the time that with a CMU education, you can do anything you want and compete with anybody on the planet."
He also coaches students not to be too enamored with titles.
"I've met Fortune 500 CEOs, I've met presidents from universities around the country. I've met elected officials. At the end of the day, they're just regular people who work hard," he said.
"You treat everybody with respect and honor who they are as individuals, whether they are 6 years old or president of a university," Ross continued. "Being CMU's president is my job, it's not who I am. I like what I've been able to do. I like the people I've met. I like the changes I've been able to make for students."
But at the end of the day, for all these jobs and titles, we still are somebody's children, he said.
"I'm just a kid from Mississippi, Eugene and Lois' baby boy."
President Ross and his wife, Elizabeth, celebrate Homecoming in 2014.