In 1994, Bellevue College declared itself a university. It had been a long time coming.
The school was born in 1966, the child of a small cadre of Bellevue businessmen dedicated to the proposition that a shot at a college degree should not be reserved exclusively to the young. It was staffed by three full-time faculty and held classes in an old building near the corner of Harvell Drive and Galvin Road.
So armed, the founders took the first steps on a path that has since been trod by thousands of non-traditional older students whose office walls today proudly display Bellevue University diplomas. It survived near-bankruptcy but emerged, under the leadership of President John Muller, who ruled the roost from 1985 to 2009, as a national leader in adult learning.
And then Muller retired, leaving the university’s board of directors with a daunting challenge: Finding someone able to build on Muller’s legacy while making a distinct mark; someone capable of lifting Bellevue’s best-known institution to even higher ground; someone with the experience, knowledge and entrepreneurial spirit to reach out to underserved populations.
They turned to a familiar person, to the school’s provost, in fact, who had already been at the school for 14 years.
Since her appointment as president in 2009, this former provost has added significantly to her already high reputation as the moving force behind the university’s online learning program which earned the university a national reputation.
She has established partnerships with more than 70 community colleges in Nebraska and beyond, a recent example being the incorporation of BU courses at Northeast Community College in Norfolk.
She has been a consistent source of innovation in enabling working mothers, military spouses and adult learners in general to pursue higher education.
She inaugurated the South Omaha outreach program, which informs the area’s Latino population of the educational opportunities available at Bellevue University.
She has built a relationship with China’s Guangzhou College of Commerce, through which hundreds of students are scheduled to further their educations at Bellevue University. In order to accommodate their arrival, she planted the seeds of a dorm system at a university known almost exclusively for its online or commuting students.
She has developed innovative approaches to education that in one case saw students engage directly with the problem of homelessness in Bellevue.
The university itself has undergone a $4 million transformation on her watch. The campus now boasts a new thoroughfare known as Bruin Boulevard, a rebuilt math building and a series of lighted puzzle sculptures that have invigorated the campus.
The sigh of relief is almost audible, that the university found the person it needed to continue its upward trajectory.
For her success lifting Bellevue’s best known institution to higher prominence, the Bellevue Leader today names Mary B. Hawkins its Person of the Year for 2015.
Bellevue Mayor Rita Sanders, a veteran marathon runner, is Hawkins’ running partner and acts as something of a mentor as Hawkins graduates from half to full marathons. There is an aspect to this of returning a favor.
Hawkins, who holds a Ph.D in industrial/organizational psychology from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has made herself available to the city.
She serves on the city’s Civil Service Commission, an important volunteer post where she helps establish training procedures for employees and sometimes arbitrate employment disputes.
She and Sanders share involvement on boards and committees dedicated to various civic causes, and have created a university-based program that seeks to help the Bellevue Food Pantry as a means to helping people avoid becoming homeless.
“Not only is Bellevue University a jewel, but so is Mary,” Sanders said. “She had big shoes to fill from her predecessor, but not only did she fill them, she took a big step forward into the future with a direct connection to the students and to the community.”
A significant aspect of that connection was the creation of BU’s South Omaha Outreach Program.
Gina Ponce, who directs the program, said Hawkins was provost when in 2000 she determined to build a relationship with South Omaha’s Latino community
“She identified a population where she wanted to increase the university’s presence, found some funders so she could provide scholarships, and really reached out,” Ponce said.
“She did some focus groups in South Omaha, did a lot of research and homework and reached out to make sure that everything was done the right way.
“The program was very successful. We started out with just 2 percent of the BU student body being Latino and lifted that to 17 percent.”
Ponce said Hawkins’ energy and vision were key.
“Her leadership in helping me make the program a success was incredible,” she said. “I’ve never worked for anyone like her.
“She’s just a wonderful person and a great supporter. She’s not a micromanager. She just gives you the resources to do the job right and let’s you do your thing.”
The university that has emerged from all this effort would make the founders proud.
In 2013, it earned a top-five national ranking from AffordableCollegeOnline.org, which judged the school based on accreditation, cost, success of graduates finding jobs and online presence. It has consistently been ranked among the nation’s top online colleges in the widely regarded U.S. News & World Report rankings.
A particularly welcome honor, given the school’s proximity to Offutt Air Force Base, came last year when the Guide to Online Schools ranked Bellevue University number one nationally in its 2015 list of Top Military Friendly Online Colleges.
John Koutok, executive chairman of American National Bank, who has served on the university’s board of directors for more than 25 years, said Hawkins has had much to do with those achievements.
Her appointment as president in 2009 was an easy matter, he said, since she was recommended by the outgoing Muller.
“The board was totally confident in Mary’s abilities,” he said. “She was well known to the board, well vetted and the board was thrilled that they didn’t have to go through a national search. We believed that we had the very best person.”
Seven years later, Koutok said, that judgment has been vindicated.
He said non-profit Bellevue University, as a pioneer in online education, has continued to prosper in spite of the arrival of national, for-profit universities whose branches also emphasize an online component.
“Mary is an enthusiastic, transparent and innovative leader,” he said “We’ve known that from the beginning. Bellevue University has always been in the position of doing things that only later did other universities try to replicate. She has been at the forefront of that.”
Scott Carlson, chief executive officer of Westin Foods and chairman of the BU board of directors, expressed similar satisfaction.
“She had big shoes to fill after John Muller’s retirement, and she has answered the bell in every way possible,” he said. “Mary was able to create a vision that the board, the students and the faculty have rallied around since the day she took the position.
“That vision involves continuing to stay relevant, and on the leading edge, in an environment of disruptive education where things are changing.”
For Carey Hamilton, president of Beardmore Chevrolet and a BU board member, Hawkins’s willingness to solicit and consider opinions other than her own is her prime leadership trait.
“She very much wants to hear opinions other than her own so that she knows she’s looking at an issue from all sides,” Hamilton said.
“But then once we’ve collectively made a decision, she just makes it happen. I mean, she just makes it happen, and far quicker than I would anticipate it could be done.
“She is absolutely outstanding,” Hamilton said. “She is scary smart, she can execute, she’s visionary but she’s also very warm, empathetic and caring, very supportive of others and willing to give her time.”