There is something telling about a man who stops his car in the pouring rain to assist a turtle by lifting it off the road. Add to that scene the fact that he’s wearing a suit and the frightened turtle tried to “spray” him, and you start to understand this is a man who knows no bounds when it comes to making a difference.
That image of “lifting” and “assisting” summarizes the essence of President Ronald S. Rochon, USI’s fourth institutional leader. Spend a little time with him and you’ll discover a multifaceted man with a dynamic personality and a talent for solutions, a gift for storytelling, a contagious laugh and broad smile, a vision, a big-picture perspective, eternal optimism, a life-long desire to educate and much more.
Born and raised on Chicago’s south side, Rochon’s no stranger to USI, having spent eight years as its provost before being selected from a national search, of more than 90 candidates, to lead the University into the future. He not only knows the ins and outs of USI, he’s loved the campus, its students, faculty and staff from the moment he arrived in 2010, leaving a position as inaugural dean of the School of Education at Buffalo State College in Buffalo, New York.
An early riser, Rochon starts his day by checking his phone to see if there are any messages from USI informing him of pressing matters. Then he hits the streets with Jaz (Jaz Rochon, a black cockapoo and family member, hence the full name on his tag). “It’s just me, my cell and Jaz,” he says.
While his educational background is in animal sciences—a bachelor’s from Tuskegee University and a master’s with a concentration in reproductive physiology from the University of Illinois (UI), he earned a doctorate in education policy studies from UI, too—Rochon’s a people person at heart. Community and relationships are first and foremost, and nothing is dearer to him than his family, especially his wife of 25 years, Lynn, their children, Ayinde and Nia, and his parents. His father impressed upon him an unrelenting work ethic through example, as a career police officer who often held down two additional jobs. And his late mother, whom he idolized, instilled in him the value of sustained relationships and the importance of engaging people with respect and civility.
It’s that foundation that fuels his vision for the University of Southern Indiana today. As Rochon looks at the landscape of not only USI’s future but also the community surrounding the institution and beyond, his message is that of collaboration and inclusion. “Until we ‘break bread together,’ we have no idea who the person sitting next to us is,” he says. “This notion of ‘look to the left and look to the right, only one third of you will remain,’ is not a message I’m interested in. I want you to look to your left and right and hold on to each other and walk forward. We are more determined and stronger that way.”
Through his life experiences and extensive international travels, Rochon understands that people, at their core, share common values that bind us rather than separate and segregate. “This is part of my calling as an educator and administrator,” he says, “to help facilitate amazing discussions about our common-core values, about our common objectives, our common goodness, our common desire to serve this special community.”
These are values he shared with Dr. Linda L. M. Bennett, emerita president, along with her accessibility practice, as he continues to carry out the five-year strategic plan she implemented in 2016. “People want to know what I’m going to do as the new president,” he says. “The number one thing people need to know is that I value them. I’m interested in advancing USI’s legacy of collaboration, integrity, honesty and transparency so our community can understand how all of us can collectively move the University of Southern Indiana forward.”
Being able to best serve USI’s community (near and far), means narrating the University’s successes to policy makers. A natural-born storyteller, Rochon won’t lecture legislators but rather reach them through tales of how USI has positively impacted lives through academic scholarships, classes, earned degrees, faculty engagement and outstanding mentors. “We will keep talking to those individuals who make decisions about resources for USI,” Rochon says. “We want to keep growing and building this institution, so it can always and forever fulfill its mission of transforming lives.”
Partnering is a key component to Rochon’s presidency; connections and collaborations that realize the needs of both community individuals and businesses, as USI has done since its inception in 1965. It is a given that USI will continue to develop academic programs that are relevant and remain responsive to not only the desires of this community but its international partners as well. “This very real need of the human condition and well-being is something I take into consideration every single day,” Rochon says. “Thinking about how this institution can impact those lives in healthy ways is important.”
While Rochon, as president, will be the institution’s greatest advocate, he sees himself as “one of many,” and the role of advocacy as something shared by all. “All of us—faculty, staff, trustees and students—are recruitment and retention officers. I want USI to be the campus of choice.”
Like the turtles that have always been part of Rochon’s life (as well as fish, snakes, gerbils, cats, dogs, pigs and more), USI’s roots as an institution with the motto education by the people, education for the people will be integral to his leadership and legacy. “This campus is a community institution, so the notion of ‘town and gown,’ from my vantage point, is non-existent,” he says. “My office is making sure that this University is and always will be the peoples’ campus.”