As Chancellor of the Prescott campus of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) Dr. Frank Ayers is responsible for full oversight of academic, operational and professional activities. He provides strategic direction for a complex multi-layered organization, which ultimately is a part of an even larger university system.
Since 2009, Ayers has guided campus administration. During those years, the campus has experienced unprecedented growth in all aspects: student enrollment at both undergraduate and graduate levels; program and curricular expansion in departments, schools and colleges; significant increases in faculty and staff; several new buildings; substantive renovation and remodeling of existing structures; acquisition of the latest in technologically advanced resources; and transformation of the university into an internationally renowned and respected institution.
The Virginia native earned his bachelor’s degree at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, where he also was commissioned as an Air Force officer. For 26 years, Ayers served in the U.S. Air Force — as a B-52 pilot, as commander of a B-52 Training Squadron, as Support Group Commander and as Chief of Joint Military Education Policy at the Pentagon. He has logged more than 6,500 flight hours in a variety of aircraft.
Ayers later earned a master’s degree from ERAU and a doctorate from Nova Southeastern University. He also is a graduate of Harvard University Senior Leaders in Government program and the University of Southern California’s Aviation Safety course.
He began his professorial and administrative career at the ERAU Daytona Beach campus, where he was chair of the Flight Training Program. It was from there that he was assigned to the Prescott campus.
Ayers and his wife Debbie have been married for 43 years. Debbie, also an Air Force officer and pilot, came from an Ohio family but was born in Puerto Rico, where her parents were stationed at a military base. The Ayers have two married sons, Mike and Clif.
Prescott LIVING: Dr. Ayers, you’ve been head administrator at Embry-Riddle for the past nine years. You’re leading the Prescott campus into its 40th anniversary. Let’s reflect about Embry. You’re part of a larger university organization; can you tell us what that is?
Dr. Frank AYERS: Certainly. In 1925, John Paul Riddle and T. Higbee Embry created the Embry-Riddle company in Cincinnati, Ohio. In 1966, our first president, Jack Hunt, decided to create the very successful three campus structure we have today. It was a training company for military pilots and others. The first Embry Riddle Campus was in Miami. In 1966, he moved the Miami campus to Daytona Beach. In 1972, he founded what would become the Worldwide Campus at Fort Rucker, Ala. Then in 1978, in response to the growth of the Eastern campus in Daytona Beach, he planted the Western residential campus in Prescott.
We have a three-campus system with a university president of the whole system, Dr. P. Barry Butler. Then there’s a chancellor at the worldwide campus, a chancellor at Prescott, and a provost in Florida who functions roughly as the chancellor in Florida.
Prescott LIVING: How large was the Prescott campus when you arrived in 2009?
Dr. Frank AYERS: We had about 1,670 students. This past fall, we had 2,660 students. What I’m most proud of is that the quality of those students has increased. We have the brightest student body in the state of Arizona – brightest student body across many universities. It’s just an amazing group of young people.
Prescott LIVING: When you arrived, how big was the university staff?
Dr. Frank AYERS: In 2009, we had about 300 people serving about 1,670 students. Now we have about 400 staff and faculty serving nearly 2,700 students. We intentionally have a very lean administrative structure. Rather than spend our dollars on administration, we spend money on our outstanding students, faculty and staff.
Prescott LIVING: How has the male-to-female ratio changed?
Dr. Frank AYERS: Between 2011 and 2018, female enrollments have increased from 17 percent of the student population to over 25 percent this year. And we’ve made real strides in that area. We were just at graduation. The Ed King Service Award winner and our two Chancellor’s winners were all bright young ladies. Young women just do amazingly well here in the STEM education programs. Our goal is to attract the brightest young people into STEM careers (science, technology, engineering and math).
Prescott LIVING: How many degree programs did you have when you arrived?
Dr. Frank AYERS: In 2009, we had 16-degree programs. Now we have 26. We then had one master’s degree. Originally we offered one master’s degree program and now we have three. Our latest master’s degree will be in cybersecurity intelligence.
Prescott LIVING: You were applauded recently as a university as having the best ROTC program in the nation. Tell us about that.
Dr. Frank AYERS: We’re very pleased. We’re the second smallest campus in the United States to offer Air Force ROTC and currently we have about the fourth largest detachment in the country. Last year, they were named the best large detachment in the country, essentially the best ROTC detachment. This year I think they were No. 2. What you see in all this is a commitment to excellence. And Air Force ROTC really leads the way in that. We consistently get the largest number of in-school scholarships in the country and the highest number of pilot slots. So think about the percentage of odds of a student coming here and getting an ROTC scholarship and becoming an Air Force pilot. It is significant.
Prescott LIVING: What major changes have occurred since you arrived?
Dr. Frank AYERS: We’ve grown both in facilities and buildings and in academic structure. I think our proudest moment is the day four years ago when we created the nation’s first and only College of Security Intelligence. We will finish our second new residence hall this fall. So that adds 500 beds to the campus. Last fall, we completed a science, technology, engineering, and math building. It contains the Jim and Linda Lee Planetarium, which is one of only three planetariums in Arizona and the only one in Northern Arizona.
We have also completely renovated all our athletic facilities. Our talented facilities team renovated five structures into a single outstanding athletic center. Along the way I think the largest growth is in hands-on education. Our goal is that we would have 100 percent of our students do what’s called a “Capstone Project.” That means before you graduate, you have to do a large team project. All our engineers do now. A significant number of aviation and security students do. All our students are involved in hands-on research. That’s what they’re focused on is, is having hands-on learning. You don’t just sit in a classroom and read a book. You go build a rocket. You go build a satellite. You do a variety of things. And the results are amazing. We launched the University’s first satellite this fall, with another on the way in 2019-2020, and our undergraduate students participated in gravitational-wave research that contributed to the lead researchers from MIT and Cal Tech earning the Nobel Prize.
Prescott LIVING: The 40th anniversary is rapidly approaching for the Prescott campus. What plans are in place?
Dr. Frank AYERS: We have a big OctoberWest celebration planned, our version of homecoming, set for Oct. 5-7. We are again partnering with the City of Prescott on a communitywide airshow on Saturday. Additionally, we are celebrating the 90th anniversary of the airport and the 40th anniversary of the University at the same time. We have Matt Chapman, the Embry air-show pilot, and several other national level aerobatic performers coming to perform. We also have a Friday night ERAU alumni/student gathering to celebrate the 40th with fireworks to cap off the evening.
During the academic year, we are sponsoring many different events to remind people of our heritage. It’s been an amazing 40 years. But it’s all really about the next 40. It’s nice to celebrate the past but it’s about where we’re going. That’s what we’re really focusing on, so it ought to be an opportunity to invite the community, especially for the airshow. Come on out – celebrate our 40th anniversary.
Prescott LIVING: Let’s shift gears. Tell us about costs and affordability.
Dr. Frank AYERS: Our financial impact on the community is significant in jobs, community outreach, and the many students who are such great employees in Prescott and Prescott Valley while they work their way through school. For our part, we have really made strides to make college more affordable for our students. We’ve dramatically increased what we call our internally funded scholarships. It’s a discount off of their tuition, based on academic merit. At the same time, we have kept our tuition increases low, significantly lower than many state institutions, while we have significantly increased the amount of money we use to attract bright students here.
We use athletic scholarships, too, to bring bright students here. Our athletes are stars on the field and in the classroom. They study fields such as space physics, engineering and the sciences.
Prescott LIVING: A major concern in higher education is the ballooning student debt. How do you help students control that?
Dr. Frank AYERS: As I said, we control the cost of the education. If you look at the fairly dramatic increase in the internally funded scholarships, that’s just a discount off tuition. The university has taken pains to keep tuition increases low and increase the amount of financial support we provide.
Prescott LIVING: How does Embry-Riddle recruit students?
Dr. Frank AYERS: We have an outstanding Dean of Enrollment Management, Bryan Dougherty. He’s a local gentleman who attended Northern Arizona University. Bryan has been in the community his whole life and understands Prescott and Embry Riddle. He has a wonderful staff that recruits around the world; and across the nation. Our top five recruiting states are California first, then Arizona, then Washington, Colorado, and Texas. We have live-in recruiters in Texas, Illinois, California, Washington, and Colorado. This school’s not for everybody. We’re looking for the best and brightest students. We find that a student who wants the career that we offer, has a high GPA, has the high SAT score, and has great leadership and participation experiences in high school.
We go to the career fairs and the college fairs and we do print advertising. We do mailers. We certainly contact people so they know who we are. It’s a great process. And we get the best students. We’re a national and international university.
Prescott LIVING: You attract a large cohort of international students.
Dr. Frank AYERS: Yeah, we certainly do. Over 8 percent of our campus is international. I think the national percentage is about 4 percent. And, again, we look for the best and brightest from around the world. So our international recruiters travel to Asia, Africa. We have a wonderful group of students from Mexico. There’s a huge demand for engineering in Mexico and Europe.
Prescott LIVING: When I arrived in Prescott 22 years ago, Embry-Riddle had the reputation locally of being, “Well, that’s where they train pilots.” How has that changed and why?
Dr. Frank AYERS: Pilot training is about 450 to 500 students out of the 2,700. Since 2000, engineering has grown to about 1,100 students. The College of Security Intelligence is another 500 students. The variety of other degrees — business, space physics, the sciences — account for the rest. Embry-Riddle has changed because I think we realized along the way that it was more than just a flight school. It is a STEM school. All degrees we offer are science degrees. However, through all that, we still train the best future commercial pilots in the nation.
One other significant point, we do not offer a degree program that doesn’t lead to good careers and jobs. We don’t just open them because someone wants to open one.
In fact, of four or five new degree programs that are proposed, we very rarely approve more than one or two. Degrees must lead to a profitable lifetime career. We’re very focused on that. The university here was named the No. 1 university in Arizona for return on investment and career placement. Other schools in that list are Ivy League or universities like Stanford or Columbia. We’re not those folks yet, but it’s nice to be in that company. Return on investment measures how much you pay to go to school, and how much it paid you back later in life. That’s why we’ve diversified. Now, we will always be an outstanding aviation and aerospace school. We will always teach pilots and engineers. We’re the best at it in the world. By offering more STEM degree programs, “We have so much more.”
Prescott LIVING: What I find remarkable: The faculty here trains students, teaches students, for careers that currently don’t exist.
Dr. Frank AYERS: It’s interesting. Because we’re private, and we’re nimble. When we see opportunities, we can move quickly. In the past, we’ve started a degree program within a year of seeing a trend.
It takes time. And we’re always looking out for where the industry is going to be.
Our motto is, we are not teaching our students about our past — but about their future.
Because 75 to 80 percent of our professors have industry experience and are second career people like myself. We’ve been in the industry. We’ve been at Raytheon, Lockheed. We’ve been in the airlines. We can see what is coming along. And we have current contacts with people who tell us, so we can understand that.
We go after trends, not after fads. We’re not going after the next “big thing.” We’re going after what we see as a long-term trend.
SATISFACTIONS & DISAPPOINTMENTS
Prescott LIVING: Your personal and professional thoughts. What’s been your biggest satisfaction since being here?
Dr. Frank AYERS: My biggest satisfaction is seeing the faculty and staff have all the tools they need and having the brightest students in front of them. We tell the students the first day they arrive, “We don’t do satisfactory here. Excellence is our standard.” And, so, we see excellence. For example, this past week (May 2018) our award-winning Golden Eagles flight team won its 12th national championship. Five of the last seven years they’ve dominated this national competition.
Our athletic teams have won their fourth Commissioner’s Cup in our conference. The Commissioner’s Cup signifies the top school out of the 12 conference universities and colleges.
As I said previously, our students launched the University’s first rocket into space. Another student team recently completed a funded research project with a major aerospace company that’s going to result in four to six patents. Our students are doing things that are just amazing. Again, the buildings are nice, the facilities are beautiful here. But it’s really what goes on in those buildings that’s amazing, and that’s what I get excited about. So that’s our biggest success — creating an environment where everyone can succeed.
Prescott LIVING: What’s your biggest challenge?
Dr. Frank AYERS: Creating an environment where everyone can succeed (laughter). We’re always looking for opportunities to do better. I’ve never worked with a group of staff and faculty who are more committed to our students and our University than this wonderful group of colleagues. As a tenured professor, I am privileged to be a member of this great faculty. And as a chancellor, I am equally privileged to be a member of this great staff. I’m proud to be a member of both faculty and staff and having that group behind us. Keeping all of us moving forward — that’s our biggest challenge. But as you can see around you, we are up to it.
Prescott LIVING: Have you ever had any major disappointments?
Dr. Frank AYERS: You know, no. I really haven’t. In fact, my wife Debbie and I haven’t had time to have disappointments. We are both so busy and engaged. Debbie’s involved in so much of campus life. She’s the hardest working unpaid person, I think, around here.
I wouldn’t say everything is always been peaches and cream. We just have to keep positive and keep moving.
All of us here, we tend to be thoughtful about what we do. Then we just do it. We want to be successful. As a campus, we do not try to copy others, rather, we try to build on our success in areas we understand. That sounds a little Pollyanna-ish, but you put good people together and it works.
ON THE COURT
Prescott LIVING: Prior to your being here, the athletic program was minimal. Since your arrival, and with the recruitment of good coaches and some really excellent student-athletes, the intercollegiate program is attracting national caliber athletes. How did that happen?
Dr. Frank AYERS: We call it doing athletics the right way. We’re using athletics to attract the brightest students. It used to be that for a student who wanted to study forensic biology and play softball, there was no place at Embry-Riddle. Now there is. We added both new academic and athletic programs that complement each other. Our theory is that if you get really bright athletes, they’ll do well. They will tell you they are great time managers. Turns out to be true.
An example is a young lady who we attracted to our golf program. She was told by several NCAA Division I schools she couldn’t be an engineer and play golf at the same time. Well, she graduated here with honors in engineering, and was a four-time All-American at golf. Now she’s a flight test engineer at Edwards Air Force Base. That’s an Embry-Riddle athlete (laughter).
And we like that. Four graduating seniors from our women’s volleyball team that dominated the conference this year — three are aerospace engineers and one a space physicist. A rocket scientist. And the volleyball team had a 30-win season and was ranked 23rd in the nation.
That’s who we’re attracting to athletics. We won five conference championships this year. Amazingly enough, in a school that’s still 75 percent men, four of those championships were by women’s teams.
Prescott LIVING: I remember one anecdote you shared with me one time. The basketball player who developed the physics of shooting a basketball. Tell us about that, Frank.
Dr. Frank AYERS: Yes, he will be a senior this year. In high school, his senior project was “The Physics of the Three-point Shot.” He had a video which used to be available on YouTube where he shows you the different arcs that the three-point shot take: The one that is the most efficient, the one that has the least bounce out. He’s an amazing young man. A senior next year. Just a real standout on our basketball team and in the classroom.
U.S. AIR FORCE ROOTS
Prescott LIVING: Prior to your becoming a university professor-administrator, you had a very successful career in the US Air Force — 26 years. You enlisted in 1974. Tell us about your professional career as a pilot.
Dr. Frank AYERS: Sure. My wife and I were both commissioned in the Air Force in 1974. In fact, Debbie was the first woman commissioned out of military school in the United States.
Prescott LIVING: The first?
Dr. Frank AYERS: Yes, the first. We both attended Virginia Tech and were members of the corps of cadets in Blacksburg. Debbie joined the Air Force ROTC the first year it was open to women and was commissioned a military cadet in 1974. I went into the Air Force as a B-52 pilot and spent about 14-15 years as a B-52 instructor pilot in a variety of roles. Squadron commander, and instructor at the B-52 School House in Merced, Calif. I shifted over to become a deputy support group commander and then a support group commander at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.
At my last assignment, I was the director for joint military education at the Pentagon. So when I came to Embry-Riddle in 2000, I’d already run several large operations. I had a combat support group of 3,500 people that I managed; I have an aviation and education background. I came to the University to teach. I think all those experiences led me to think I might be able to do some more things at the University. I was the chair of the flight department of our Florida campus for about five years, and then was asked to Prescott. And this has simply been the best.
Prescott LIVING: Tell us about your career at the Pentagon and the FAA Industry Training Standards (FITS) program.
Dr. Frank AYERS: They are two separate things. My career at the Pentagon — I was in charge of joint military education. So, I served as the accrediting body for joint military education, encompassing joint warfare, at all the intermediate and senior service schools such as the Air War College. I was a “purple suit” as the saying goes, representing the Joint Staff.
The FAA Industry Training Standards program (FITS) happened when I became a college professor. The FAA came to ERAU and said, “Is there a better way to do flight training?” The FITS program was an effort to put judgment and decision-making back into pilot flight training. And we did some empirical research on scenario-based training, instead of just maneuver-based training. Eventually we formed a team with faculty from three different universities in that project. The results are still being used today. That’s the best part.
Prescott LIVING: Along the way you earned degrees.
Dr. Frank AYERS: Yes, I found ERAU in 1986. To be honest, the reason I earned a master’s degree is because the Air Force, at that time, said you had to have one to be promoted to a lieutenant colonel. I went back to school at our Worldwide campus at Merced and realized, “You know, it’s a pretty high-class operation.” When I retired from the Air Force, I decided to come to work for them. Once I had been at Embry-Riddle for about three years, I realized that if you’re at a university, the credential required is a doctoral degree. So, I ended up attending Nova Southeastern University in their higher education leadership program, again as a working adult, on weekends and online.
Prescott LIVING: When you left the Air Force, you could have gone anywhere. Why did you join the academic realm?
Dr. Frank AYERS: I was at the Pentagon and I had the opportunity to stay there in Washington, wear a suit every day and commute to work for a defense contractor and spend time with my former colleagues. But my whole Air Force career was in teaching. I like working with young people. I like teaching. So I told the University I’ll do pretty much anything they ask as long as I get daily contact with students. I think to be a professor, to actively teach and mentor students is what I like to do. When you get to do what you like to do and it makes a difference in people’s lives, that’s not too bad.
Prescott LIVING: You were very fortunate you met Debbie. Tell us about that.
Dr. Frank AYERS: Well, she and I met at Virginia Tech. Earlier, we actually lived about a mile apart in Washington, D.C. suburbs, but a mile apart there is about a half million people. We met through Air Force ROTC. When the Air Force ROTC opened up to women, she actually was first to sign up and that’s how she was commissioned. So we were good friends for a couple years. Finally one day we said, well maybe since we’re such good friends, we should get married. And we did that. We both entered the Air Force and served together for five years. Then she got out of the Air Force. But we’ve always been together and always worked together on everything.
Coming here, she’s involved in so much in the community and so much the life of the campus. You were at graduation this spring. When I introduced her, I think she got the biggest applause because so many of the students and parents know who she is. She really buys into what we’re doing here. You know, sometimes we’re the parents away from home. We take that seriously. We live on the campus so we go to everything. We go to all the games. We go to the different projects. We go to see what our young people do.
I’m very fortunate. Debbie’s such a partner, and we’re a team. We always have been.
Prescott LIVING: How many years?
Dr. Frank AYERS: 43 years of marriage.
Prescott LIVING: You’ve got children?
Dr. Frank AYERS: Two boys, one 34 and one 37, two wonderful daughters-in-law, Stephanie and Stacey, and three grandchildren, Alice, Ava and Eli. Our youngest son Clif, just got married. Our older son Mike gets married in December. Clif just finished a tour in the Army, deployed to Afghanistan, he was an Army Ranger and served as an infantry officer in the 101st and 82nd Airborne. He works for Amazon now. Mike is a very much in-demand artist in Florida. They are both great and talented young men.
Prescott LIVING: Word on the street for a long, long time, you’re a pretty good guitar player. When did you start playing the guitar?
Dr. Frank AYERS: I’ve been playing guitar since I was 11. I had a really great guitar teacher a gentleman named Courtney Nalls, who played with the Air Force band. He taught me jazz. And I just fell in love with jazz and improvisation. I’ve played every kind of music. Where I really got back into music was in the early ’80s. Deb and I participated in an event called the Walk to Emmaus. There was a lot of music associated with this weekend Via De Christo, “walk with Christ.” I got back into playing again. We now play at the Prescott United Methodist Church on Saturday nights. I have a great time with that. I get to go be the guitar player in a band once a week.
Whatever music’s in front of us, I love playing — in groups and playing improvisational music. It’s a great relief from the day-to-day routine.
I always kid people that I only play in church because the congregation will either applaud or pray for you!