Jeff Merritt jokes that he majored in football and fraternity while he attended Appalachian State University in the late 1980s. Maybe he’s being a little hard on himself; he earned a degree in political science in 1989 and began working for Gov. Jim Martin before he even graduated.
Merritt married and continued to pursue his career, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that he wasn’t quite finished with his education. “I thought I knew everything when I was in my twenties,” he says. “But in my thirties I noticed I just read the same old things. I didn’t stretch myself a whole lot.”
He saw an ad for NC State’s Master of Arts in Liberal Studies (MALS) program and was intrigued by how students could work with faculty to craft an individualized, interdisciplinary plan of graduate study. By that time, Merritt had two young children. The very idea of taking on graduate-level studies in addition to working full-time and being a dad was daunting.
Oddly, it was television that convinced him to take the plunge. “One night at about nine o’clock, I was watching TV and this voice in my head said, ‘If you have time to watch this, you have time to go back to school.’ It was a moment of real clarity,” says Merritt.
Merritt started the MALS program in 1998. The course of study he designed concentrated on Southern history. He took courses in philosophy, American history and labor unions, among others, and focused his thesis on North Carolina’s civil rights experience.
Merritt was impressed by the quality of the faculty and by how the program utilizes faculty from across the university to teach courses. “We had wonderful class discussions,” he says. “I had professors from all points on the political spectrum — extremely liberal and extremely conservative and right in the middle. I got the expanded critical thinking I was looking for.”
He also appreciated the culture of the MALS program. “They didn’t cut us any slack,” he says, “but they did realize we’d worked eight hours that day and some of us had changed a few diapers. They knew we brought a different set of baggage to the table.”
It took Merritt six years to finish as a part-time student. He became a proud NC State graduate in 2005. “I knew my dad would just love it if I had a degree from NC State,” he says. Merritt’s dad was a 1962 graduate of State College. “As weird as that sounds, it was part of what motivated me.”
Merritt’s job is to make sure the facility stays relevant to today’s market and to the university. The Centennial Authority contracts with Gale Force Sports and Entertainment to take care of day-to-day issues like concessions and parking, but Merritt is responsible for balancing the needs of the two tenants with financial reality.
“I want Coach Gottfried to be able to recruit with this building,” says Merritt. “I want NC State backers who buy a ticket to feel really good about their investment.” Merritt thinks about the details: How easy was it to get in and out of the building? How comfortable were the seats? Was the staff nice? If there was trouble, was it addressed properly?
Each year, $3 million to $4 million is spent maintaining and upgrading the PNC Arena. Recent improvements include updated locker rooms, digitized menu boards, a new basketball court, Wolfpack-red seats and upgraded technology to improve wireless Internet connections.
“NC State is a great tenant because it understands what college basketball means to the university,” says Merritt. “We want to give them a building they can be proud of, and the university wants a building that the fan base looks at and says, ‘How many better places are there to see a basketball game in the country?’ It’s a very short list.”
What relevance does Merritt’s graduate degree have in his professional life? Plenty. “I’m a much better writer and communicator now, particularly in a crisis,” he says. “The classroom experience I got was just fantastic. Everything I thought I would get out of graduate school, I got that and a hundred times more. I would sign on to do it again in a minute.”
By Christa Gala
This article originally appeared in the college’s 2013 alumni magazine, Accolades.