By Brent Donaldson
Special to KyForward
It’s a perfect afternoon in May, just one month since NKU announced Geoff Mearns as the fifth president in the university’s 44-year history. In a few weeks, Geoff, his wife, Jennifer, and their five children will pack up everything they own and move from Shaker Heights, Ohio, to their new home in Northern Kentucky.
“Somebody’s coming to look at the house at 7,” Jennifer says as Geoff walks through the door. It’s 5 o’clock, and Geoff has just arrived home from Cleveland State University, where he was the former dean of the law school and most recently the university’s provost. Also arriving home are Clare, 16; Christina, 18; and Geoffrey Jr. and Molly, the 14-year-old twins. (Bridget, 20, is still finishing the semester at Ohio University, where she’s studying to become a math teacher.) When Geoff Jr. and Molly enter the house they’re careful to stash their backpacks in a closet, out of sight of the house hunters who will arrive at 7.
Cellphones vibrate below the chatter. We discuss the transition unfolding right in front of us—a new job, a new city, a new home. There are media requests to deal with. There are bids on this Shaker Heights house to consider and new houses to look at in Northern Kentucky. And now two staffers from the NKU alumni office are sitting here in the Mearns’ living room, armed with recorders and peppering them with questions that veer all over the map. (Fun facts: President Mearns has just about every album James Taylor ever made. He’s also an avid reader of detective stories, especially those of Swedish writer Henning Mankell.)
Together it’s enough to rattle a Zen Buddhist, but today the family is putting on a clinic in calm.
Two hours fly by. We talk about higher education and Geoff’s academic career at Cleveland State. We talk about the challenges and excitement of becoming the next president of NKU. We cover Geoff Mearns’ nine-year career with the U.S. Department of Justice and the emotional toll of being a special attorney for the Oklahoma City bombing trial. We talk about the Gambino crime family and the risks of prosecuting high-profile members of the mafia. And we discuss running marathons, and the Olympic trial that got away.
It’s near the end of the interview when a subtle pattern emerges. When Geoff Mearns ponders a question, and as each coiled strand of thought unravels in his mind, there’s a subtle kinesis that begins in his bright blue eyes, travels up his forehead, then quickly down to his mouth, which spreads into a half-smile just before he speaks.
It’s comforting somehow, as if the act of listening is so physically engaging that it elicits this playful, involuntary reaction. But after you’ve had a few conversations with President Mearns, you understand that what you’re seeing isn’t so subtle at all. You realize that, as much as any other talent, it’s the way Mearns listens that has propelled the man like a rocket through two parallel and complementary career paths.
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Geoffrey S. Mearns was born the fifth of nine children in August 1959 in Charlottesville, Va. His mother, Patricia Mearns, who passed away in August, was the beloved two-term mayor of Shaker Heights between 1992 and 2000. His father, known in circles far and wide as “Ted,” is a former faculty member at Northwestern and Case Western Reserve University, as well as dean of the law school at the University of Cincinnati and an associate dean of law at the University of Virginia. Of the nine children in the family, five have law degrees.
“We don’t have rebels,” Ted Mearns jokes. He remembers Geoff as a highly optimistic child. “Geoff was happy, positive—all things were possible. A little bit romantic. You know when you go out in the backyard with a basketball and pretend it’s the end of the game, and there are 10 seconds left, and then 6, 5, 4, 3 … and you shoot and when it goes in, you scream, ‘We win the game!’ Just enjoying the imagination and looking ahead—Geoff had a lot of that. He had a lot of not looking at the downsides of things.”
“My father is my best friend,” Geoff Mearns says. “People don’t always view their parents that way, but because my father was a professor and he was in academics, he was around. I remember him reading, preparing, grading. He was home for dinner every night; he was at all of my cross-country and track meets. My parents treat people the way I hope my kids treat people, which is no matter what your title or position, you show everyone the same level of courtesy and respect. It wasn’t until I got a little bit older that I better understood what it meant to my father.”
It could hardly have meant more. Geoff’s father was teaching constitutional law at UVA when the Kennedy administration hired him to assess the progress of desegregation that had taken place in Virginia since the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case _Brown v. The Board of Education_. Years later, when President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Ted Mearns was put to work setting up desegregation guidelines for public schools, and for years he traveled throughout the South to mediate disputes with the school districts.
It was after attending Walnut Hills in Cincinnati in the early 1970s that Geoff Mearns began to grasp the gravity and importance of his father’s work. Precipitating the family’s move to Cleveland in the mid-1970s, the Mearnses were receiving what Ted calls “very ugly” anonymous hate mail and threatening phone calls. Ted remembers carefully removing some of the letters with tweezers so he wouldn’t contaminate them with his fingerprints.
It was all a lot for a young Geoff Mearns to process. “That was an interesting time,” he says, “because in the ’60s we didn’t lock the doors at our house. We had a published telephone number. When we moved from Cincinnati [to Cleveland] I was a 15- or 16-year-old kid, and all of the sudden for the first time we had an unlisted number. We were locking the doors at night. He showed me copies of the letters he had received that had to be turned over to the FBI. When you are 15 or 16 or 17, you understand that this is not something trivial. It’s not a joke.”
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Geoff Mearns graduated from Yale University in 1981 with a B.A. in English, a degree he quickly employed as a teacher at a private college prep school in Morristown, N.J. But ask him about this time in his life and he’ll tell you: the job, while wonderful, also afforded him time to pursue his main goal during this period: contending in the 1984 Olympic trials.
The plan was to attend law school in the fall of 1984—after, he hoped, racing in the summer trials. In 1982, the year he met his future wife, Jennifer, Geoff completed his first-ever marathon in 2 hours 16 minutes, averaging less than 5 minutes and 12 seconds per mile. In 1983 he qualified for the Olympic trials with a time of 2:17. But a few months later a stress fracture in his heel dashed his Olympic dreams for good. “That was not a good day,” he says. “But that’s what happens when you train 120 miles a week for four months in a row.”
Geoff Mearns graduated Order of the Coif from UVA’s law school in 1987. He and Jennifer married the following year, just before Geoff accepted a job as an assistant attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice.
There is enough tension and drama in the cases Mearns prosecuted with the DOJ to satisfy true-crime readers for a long, long time. But two cases provide a snapshot into the enormity of his tasks as a federal prosecutor.
Mearns began his career with the DOJ in the Eastern District of New York: Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and Long Island—the heartland of organized crime, as he calls it. Two weeks before Christmas Day in 1990, members and henchmen of the Gambino crime family—including mob boss John Gotti and Thomas “Tommy” Gambino, the mobster son of the infamous Carlo Gambino—were arrested in New York City on charges that included racketeering, extortion, and murder. Mearns’ mentor at the DOJ, John Gleeson, was able to convince John Gotti’s right-hand man, Salvatore “Sammy Bull” Gravano, to testify as a government witness against members of his own mafia syndicate. That included Tommy Gambino, whom Mearns successfully convicted May 11, 1993.
Fewer than two years later while Mearns was stationed in Raleigh, N.C., United States attorney general Janet Reno enlisted him as a special prosecutor for the worst act of domestic terrorism the country has ever seen. On April 19, 1995, at 9:02 a.m., the blast outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building killed 168 and injured more than 800.
After the Timothy McVeigh conviction, Mearns represented the United States in the case against McVeigh’s accomplice, Terry Nichols. Mearns says it’s hard to capture what it felt like to be part of that small prosecution team. “If you talk to any of the members of the team,” he says, “what they remember most are the victims, the families of the people who were killed. These people embraced us not just as their lawyers but as people who were there to seek justice for their mothers, their children. There were 19 babies who were killed. To be an advocate for people who have lost so much and who are putting their hope and faith in you is hard to describe. It was a privilege and an honor.”
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With cases like these and the cases Mearns took at private firms such as Baker & Hostetler and Thompson Hine, it’s little wonder he was tapped to be the dean of the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law at CSU in 2005. Mearns is widely credited with raising the passage rates of graduates on the Ohio bar exam as well as renovating the school’s law building and increasing donations from alumni and law firms. Of his tenure as provost that started in early 2010, numerous colleagues spoke of how Mearns greatly improved the relationship between faculty and the university administration.
“Geoff has a way of making everyone feel at ease immediately,” says Michael Schwartz, the widely popular former president of CSU. “That has been his leadership style: listen carefully, reason with people, and then decide the course to take and go there. He was instinctively a very good leader. You might say that you disagreed with him; you could never say that you hadn’t been respectfully heard.”
“He is a master of protocol,” adds Craig Boise, the current dean of the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law who formerly worked with Mearns at Thompson Hine. “If there’s a decision that needs to be made, which constituent needs to be consulted? Whose opinion needs to be part of the process? Where do you vet the idea? At the same time, he doesn’t allow the process to subsume decision making, and that’s what you want—somebody who’s not paralyzed by the process.”
That last point could prove vital. President Mearns will have to steadily navigate a number of complex realities facing public higher education. “I know that in Kentucky as in many other states, state support for public higher education has been declining,” Mearns says. “Not necessarily as the result of any legislative policy but just as a result of fiscal reality. One of the challenges is to persuade the legislature and others that Northern Kentucky University is a worthwhile investment, that their investment in this institution is so important to the future economic vitality of this region and to the Commonwealth.”
At the same time, technology is changing education in ways unimaginable until recent years, and steering an “up-close-and-personal” university like NKU will be a delicate operation. “This is an institution where faculty know their students,” Mearns says. “They know their names, and the students feel that the faculty are personally invested in their success. I think that for this institution the challenge is to maintain that personal educational experience but use technology to enhance that experience as opposed to getting in the way of it.”
After only a few weeks on the job, President Mearns’ itinerary has been ambitious: meeting with staff and faculty, assessing the university’s strengths and areas of needed improvement, engaging with the community, and then taking this information and, step by step, charting a course. It’s been his style all along. “He leaves things better off than he finds them,” his father says. “He meets everything that’s coming at him. He’s got that litigator’s gift of never being surprised by a question because you’re prepared. That’s an asset.”
“After 50 years in higher education,” adds Schwartz, “I’ve seen some otherwise promising presidents fail, and as often as not, it is because they commit the sin of ‘arrogant grandiosity.’ You will find none of that in Geoff. Jennifer and the kids would not permit it, and he’s not that kind of guy anyway. I am not surprised he has become a president. When talent meets with intelligence and passion, as in his case, nothing should be surprising about Geoff.”
(Photos from NKU)
Brent Donaldson is editor of Northern Kentucky University’s Northern Magazine. The story appeared in the Summer/Fall 2012 edition and is reprinted with permission.