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A Special Thank You to Gebeyehu "Gebe" Ejigu
If Governors State University (GSU) were the whimsical Land of Oz, Gebeyehu “Gebe” Ejigu would be the wizard, operating behind the scenes at the university for more than a decade to ensure a quality education for thousands of students in Chicago’s Southland.
As a passionate academic and driven leader with a GPS-like genius for finance, Ejigu served as Executive Vice President and Chief of Staff, Visiting Professor, and Special Advisor to President Elaine P. Maimon, who calls her longtime colleague “a key builder of GSU.”
Moreover, the native Ethiopian is a visionary and a strategist whose indelible imprint on GSU spans from boardroom to the classroom reaching from athletics to the arts.
On Aug. 31, Ejigu—affectionately known as Gebe—retired from the university, bringing to a close almost five decades of service to higher education—the last 11 years of which were at GSU. His contributions are inextricable from the institution’s transformation, and his exit comes as the university marks its beginnings 50 years ago.
“Your leadership in managing GSU’s fiscal health helped create a culture of strategic investment. All major initiatives—the Dual Degree Program, the structured four-year undergraduate program, student housing, athletics, and the projects recommended this summer by the Enrollment Task Force—bear your signature,’’ Dr. Maimon recently wrote in an email to Ejigu.
Now, the Jaguar nation pens its own “thank you” to the man who leaves the institution that some call his special namesake.
“He wore so many hats, people started saying this was Gebernors State University. He was everywhere, doing everything,’’ said Tracy Sullivan, Assistant Vice President for Procurement and Business Services, and part of the eight-member team that reported to Ejigu.
Trustee Bruce Friefeld, who has served the university since the first regional Board was seated in 1996, agreed. “His impact on the university is in everything. Sometimes people are brilliant, but they are abrasive. Gebe is the complete package —an intellect, a leader, and a facilitator.”
In 2007, in the newly created position of Executive Vice President and Chief of Staff, Ejigu took the lead of GSU’s executive team and was responsible for executive-level direction and management of Budget and Financial Planning, Administrative Services and Planning, Financial Services, Business Operations, Procurement and Auxiliary Services, Information Technology Services, Human Resources, Facility Operations and Capital Projects, and Public Safety.
He served as primary advisor to President Maimon on all administrative and university business matters, and chaired significant university-wide committees.
In short, Ejigu enjoyed a wide berth of power and created a seismic culture shift. And, he did it without ceremony or fanfare.
“Gebe never liked the recognition or limelight, but those of us behind the scenes know he was the engine moving us forward,’’ said Will Davis, Vice President for Institutional Advancement and CEO of the GSU Foundation. He joined GSU in 2012, and shortly thereafter found a mentor in Ejigu.
“Gebe is the executive sponsor of my career here at GSU. He endorsed, valued, and encouraged me in transitioning my corporate skills, knowledge, and success to higher education.’’
Ejigu arrived in 2007 as the university was transitioning and gearing up for its 40-year anniversary in 2009.The Board was looking for an inspired vision to build on the quality initiatives achieved by President Stuart Fagan.
By the mid-2000s, GSU had made some changes in its original experimental approaches, while remaining true to its fundamental mission to serve traditionally underserved populations of minorities, community college transfer students, and working adults.
In October 2008 the Board of Trustees approved the university’s new strategic plan, Strategy 2015—Inspire Hope, Realize Dreams, Strengthen Community, affirming the university’s core values and setting strategies to achieve them.
Before the university could grow, it needed to shore up its foundation—almost literally.
“The parking lots needed to be repaired; the science labs were antiquated. There was so much deterioration on campus, but we didn’t have the money to fix anything,’’ said Lorine Samuels, a former Trustee and Board Chair when Ejigu and Dr. Maimon arrived. “Once Gebe came in, he looked at other ways to finance our projects, such as issuing bonds—the Board had never done that before—and it all came together.”
Equipped with advanced degrees and Harvard leadership training, Ejigu let his financial brilliance shine to boost enrollment.
First, Ejigu and President Maimon implemented the Planning and Budget Advisory Council (PBAC) to bring transparency to the university’s budgeting process. In conjunction with the Provost, Ejigu co-chaired the 21-member committee that centralized planning and allocation of funds prior to the beginning of each fiscal year, a practice that contributed to enduring fiscal stability.
Increased reserves plus bond proceeds equaled funding for historic projects that resulted in a campus that looked and felt different in record time. It was a special talent, said Sullivan, who had been with GSU for a decade when Ejigu arrived.
“He had a way of mobilizing people. If they worked for him, with him, around him—or not—he could get a group of diverse people that had similar or different interests or opinions, pull them together, and give them a goal and get it done—at lightning speed.”
Ejigu’s goal was to create a welcoming space.
“He was always looking for how he could improve the environment to be more inviting for the students,’’ said Samuels.
That was a mile-high view. Nick Battaglia, who served in a variety of roles until he retired in 2016, was part of the Ejigu crew at one point.
“Gebe was a major force in maturing the environment of GSU—in developing a GSU 2.0, if you will… He changed GSU, and believe me, it was something to see.”
Almost immediately, Ejigu and President Maimon started crafting university-wide initiatives to boost enrollment and graduation rates.
The award-winning Dual Degree Program (DDP) was at the top of the list. With the DDP, GSU partnered with Chicago-area community colleges to create a pathway to a four–year degree. Thanks to the generous support of the Kresge Foundation, the DDP expanded from five partners to 17 and is today viewed as a model.
To accommodate new students on campus, Ejigu led the effort to create a four-phase student residency plan.
In April 2013, hard hats went to work at Prairie Place, GSU’s first residence hall, a living-learning community staffed by faculty-in-residence, a full-time director, and trained resident assistants.
Shortly after the residence hall opened, Ejigu rallied the faculty, staff, and students to adopt a mascot that would convey a cohesive community, and the Jaguar was ultimately adopted by GSU’s inaugural sports teams.
But his strategy ran deeper than the team’s reserve bench. “Gebe knew that by adding an athletic program and joining the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, we could recruit scholarship athletes who would also qualify for federal and state grants,’’ said Athletic Director Tony Bates.
The combination—a focus on graduation coupled with financial aid—provided an affordable degree for about 85 students a year who might not otherwise attend GSU.
Sports teams would create excitement on campus, but Bates and Ejigu agreed academic achievement would be the true measure of success. Students who excelled in the classroom and on the court would be the win-win the university needed.
“Athletics was Gebe’s dream,” Bates said. “I was blessed to be a part of bringing it to life. Gebe believed in me, and even today when I speak with him, I thank him for this amazing opportunity.’’
As promised, Bates called Ejigu after the Men’s Basketball championship and was met with a classic question: “He said, ‘Why did it take you so long to win?’ We laughed together, and I promised to keep in touch. Gebe is the best.”
Many may not know the Jaguars were not GSU’s first champions.
As Ejigu and President Maimon were coming on board in 2007, the university was building a co-ed table tennis team with students from China’s Guangdong University of Technology.
An avid table tennis fan in his native Ethiopia, Ejigu became the team’s biggest booster and put together a scholarship to help recruit more Chinese students to the university.
At its height, the table tennis team of about 20 athletes paddled its way to a fourth place national ranking by the National Collegiate Table Tennis Association in 2011. A year later, the team was ranked sixth nationally.
Head Coach TJ Wang called his athletes the “anchor” of GSU’s athletics program and the inspiration for Ejigu, who was surprised table tennis wasn’t more respected as a competitive game.
“Gebe and I knew this was a sport, and how the university could benefit from it. Together, we made that happen. We created some excitement—the most in the first 40 years of the university.”
The 5:01 Club
Like the table tennis players, Ejigu was always pushing himself and his leadership team for efficiency and excellence.
The 2011 project to deliver the integration of an enterprise resource planning system, aka Colleague, was another example.
It was a massive undertaking to move away from manual, paper-intensive processes to a single, integrated, automated system that served students and employees in a comprehensive way. Prior to Colleague, the university had been logging grades, payroll, and work orders all by hand.
Sullivan was part of a core group of university leaders from Finance, Human Resources, and Facilities and Maintenance, among other areas, that worked on the fast-tracked roll out in 2011. The team would work all day in their regular positions. After hours, they would program and test the system late into the night and sometimes weekends.
Several months in, the Finance Team made a decision.
“At least one day a week, we would be out by 5,’’ recalled Sullivan. “We started sending around meeting requests—the 5:01 club will be meeting. The premise was that you could work until 5, but at 5:01 you had to be at the (University Park) golf course.”
A founding member, Ejigu would meet the team for snacks, drinks, and mandatory small talk. After a while, as the club grew, new members were initiated by answering a funny question or singing a song. “We just wanted to get to know one another and not talk about work,’’ Sullivan said.
The famed 5:01 Club faded with the launch of Colleague in 2011, only a year and a half after they began work. A project of the Colleague magnitude usually takes teams two years to implement, Sullivan said. The expedited timeline was consistent.
“Gebe always had an aggressive plan. He knew what he wanted, and when he wanted it.”
By 2015, new initiatives were in place to boost enrollment, alongside new and upgraded infrastructure across campus, the freshmen were seated, and Colleague was running along smoothly. Still, while GSU was celebrating momentum, funding from the state of Illinois stalled. State agencies from Cairo to Chicago were reeling without funding, and Governors State was no exception.
Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 saw the last “normal” state appropriations before the budget crisis. FY16 saw a 70% reduction in appropriations, and FY17 brought an additional 50% cut.
GSU’s financial stability was stressed. Programs and positions had to be trimmed to keep open the doors for the university’s new freshman and returning students.
The PBAC process, which included setting aside reserve funds each year, was the strategic management tool that helped the university survive, and even thrive, during these tumultuous years.
Davis, Vice President for Institutional Advancement and CEO of the GSU Foundation, said it was Ejigu’s financial genius that helped stabilize the university in the face of potential devastation—something noticed at a national level.
In 2015, the American Council on Education (ACE) recognized Georgia State University and GSU’s transformation with its ACE/Fidelity Investments Award for Institutional Transformation. “Georgia State and Governors State universities serve as excellent examples of the efforts our institutions are making to increase access to higher education and meet the needs of an ever-more diverse student body,” said ACE President Molly Corbett Broad.
Another more recent initiative is the Enrollment Growth Task Force, a multifaceted approach to attract students. The task force, initiated in March 2018 to deal with the aftermath of the budget crisis, has studied graduate programs, online learning, international studies, and systems and processes to craft growth strategies. Co-chairing this task force with Dean Andrae Marak, is Gebe’s parting gift to GSU.
A Legacy of Education
Quietly and deliberately, Ejigu gave generously to so many in the GSU community.
He shared his time, talent, and wisdom to nurture the institution, while simultaneously feeding a passion he developed as a boy growing up in rural Ethiopia.
He left the politically torn country in 1974 to come to the U.S., where he advanced his education.
In 1971, Ejigu earned an MBA at Syracuse University. In 1980, he received a Ph.D. in Higher Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, before going on to the Harvard Institute for Management and Leadership in Education Program.
Along the way, he became a U.S. citizen, a high-level college administrator, and, ultimately, an elite Fulbright Specialist in 2012.
As one of an estimated 400 U.S. faculty and professionals selected for the Fulbright Program, Ejigu traveled abroad to teach at South China Normal University, where he presented lectures and workshops designed to cover the structure, governance, financing, organization, and management of the United States educational system at all levels—K-12 and postsecondary institutions.
The Fulbright Specialists Program, created to complement the traditional Fulbright Scholar Program, provides short-term academic opportunities (two to six weeks) that support curricular and faculty development and institutional planning at post-secondary, academic institutions around the world.
In the program, Ejigu created a cross-disciplinary course, China in Africa that was offered through the GSU colleges of Arts and Sciences and Business in 2017.
A keen observer of world governments, Ejigu used the course to explore the geopolitical impact surrounding China’s activities in Africa.
It was an online course that drew students from all majors and disciplines, said Olu Ijose, Division Chair for Marketing, Management, and Entrepreneurship for the College of Business, as well as Director of the newly formed Center for Global Supply Chain and International Business.
He called the class revolutionary.
“Gebe was ahead of his time,’’ Ijose said. “He designed a unique course that should be offered everywhere simply because of what's going on in China and the trade wars now. He could see what was coming.”
Ijose admired Ejigu’s broad vision and common touch reflected in the way he brought together GSU’s hallmark mix of students—nontraditional and traditional—at a time when older students were not accustomed to taking classes with 18 and 19 year olds, even online.
“Gebe did a good job capturing the campus dynamics. He had to work hard to engage with students with such diverse age and experience in one classroom.”
One of those nontraditional students was Mildred Harper, a graduate student in the Public Administration program. In 2017, she took Ejigu’s China in Africa. “We called him G-G. His class really opened my eyes, culturally, to learn the relationship of China and Africa. Even now—I just saw Crazy Rich Asians—and I had a flashback to the class.”
GSU Alum Angela Gore also took China in Africa—and was sometimes lost. “After class, your head may have been zooming and then you saw something on the news and thought to yourself, ‘this is what he was talking about.’”
From Haile Selassie to Governors State
Inspiring and educating students was always what Ejigu wanted to do. In fact, it was a promise he made to the Ethiopian government when he was in high school.
In exchange for full tuition and room and board at Haile Selassie I University, young Ejigu and about 30 other high school students handpicked from around the country promised to become educators.
After Ejigu graduated from university, he left Ethiopia to earn a master’s degree in the U.S. He returned home after completing the degree, but left again in 1974, and spent the next four decades building programs and reputations at schools in Missouri, Alaska, Arizona, and Illinois.
Ejigu arrived at GSU just in time for the 40-year anniversary and leaves as the university prepares to celebrate 50 years of progress.
And while his vast contributions pushed the community forward with new infrastructure, programs, initiatives, and, indeed, a new culture, Ejigu’s legacy will live in Governor State’s classrooms.
He was delivering a guest lecture at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia when Ammanuel Ayalew met him. A recent graduate, Ayalew told Ejigu that he dreamed of coming to the U.S. to advance his own education.
Ejigu must have seen himself in Ayalew, then 23 years old. He immediately arranged for the young Ethiopian to come to GSU in 2014, where the international student seamlessly integrated into American culture by living in Governors State’s new dorm and playing on the first men’s basketball team.
Oz’s wizard could see the true character of those wayward travelers who ended up in the that mystical land, and Ejigu was clear that Ayalew had what it took to succeed—the courage to start a new life across the globe, the heart to connect with new people, and the brains to excel.
Still, Ejigu stayed close to Ayalew, now a GSU alum and a sentimental connection to home.
“His family frequently had me over for good ’ole traditional Ethiopian food, and we celebrated Ethiopian holidays together,” Ayalew said of Ejigu and his wife of 53 years, who lived near campus. “In Ethiopia, we use a term, “gashe,” to show respect and endearment for older men,’’ Ayalew said. “That’s what he was for me. He made sure I wasn’t homesick, he mentored me constantly, and helped me mature culturally. I’m truly grateful for Gashe Gebe.”