Suzanne Shipley is leading Shepherd in new directions
SHEPHERDSTOWN – Seven years after Texas-born Suzanne Shipley became the 15th president of Shepherd University – and the first woman to hold the job – she’s continuing to make her mark here.
Among the issues she’s focusing on these days: Guiding Shepherd as it expands into new markets, including the creation of a program to attract international students, expanding services to nontraditional adult learners at a campus that opened last fall just off Interstate 81 in nearby Martinsburg, and continuing to forge Shepherd’s reputation as not just a school that prepares outstanding teachers and nurses, but as one of the region’s premier public liberal arts universities.
When she arrived at Shepherd, she made clear her intention to stay at least seven years, explaining then that “it takes that long to make a difference.” Her immediate predecessor, David Dunlap, had retired after 11 years in Shepherd’s top job. Shipley’s selection came from a field of more than 120 applicants.
There are distinct advantages as she remains at the helm, Shipley said. “It’s much easier to get things done,” she said. “The more people know you, the more they trust you and that lets you cut through a lot of the red tape.
“I’ve gotten to know people in the community, I’ve gotten to know the politicians and other leaders – and they’ve gotten to know me. The more time I spend in the role, the easier it becomes to make things happen.”
With each passing year at Shepherd, it does take Shipley longer to get across campus or around town, she notes with a smile. As more people get to know who she is, more want to stop and chat.
Even when she’s out on her daily fitness walks, Shipley know she’s likely to field questions and hear concerns from students, community leaders and others.
“It’s like a small family here – and I especially love the interactions I get to have with students,” explains the 60-year-old Shipley, who during her time at Shepherd has led the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission’s Council of Presidents as well as a statewide initiative on adult learning.
Other milestones on Shipley’s extensive list of accomplishments at Shepherd: Her work to get the school accepted in the prestigious Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges, a nod to its comment to ensuring students have a handle on liberal arts concepts, with hands-on experience and critical skills mastery, and the conclusion to Shepherd’s first comprehensive campaign, an effort that brought in more than $25 million.
Spending so long as a university president isn’t always the norm. Since she arrived in 2007, top leadership has turned over at a full two-thirds of colleges and universities nationwide, she points out.
Shipley’s background – as a linguist, and one who spent part of her childhood on a college campus – gives her a unique perspective.
Through her father’s job managing a television station, Shipley’s childhood was filled with brushes with greatness, from a photo op on Liberace’s lap to meeting “Make Room for Daddy” star Danny Thomas to getting to pet Lassie, but Shipley said she found her mother’s workplace even more stimulating.
Her mother worked as an adjunct math professor at Texas Tech and Shipley regularly spent time on campus, watching as her mother prepared for classes. Shipley said she knew early on the vibrant atmosphere of campus life was a perfect match.
“There were so many interesting people everywhere,” she said. “That experience shaped me.”
Shipley discovered her love of foreign language while still in elementary school. “From very early on, I was just crazy about German – I loved it so much and my parents supported me even though I’m sure they wondered what might come of it.” By age 12, she knew three foreign languages.
Shipley went on to earn degrees in German from Texas Tech and the University of Texas at Austin and then began her academic career at the University of Cincinnati. She later worked in Arizona and in Baltimore, in roles including professor, department chairwoman and dean of academic affairs.
For a decade starting in 1975, Shipley lived in Germany as she studied for her Ph.D. She’s traveled to every country in Europe except Portugal and also has spent time in Indian, Nepa, Ukraine, Russia and Thailand.
A fellow with the American Council on Education, she researched the lives of German-Jewish women emigrants in a postdoctoral fellowship at Hebrew Union College, bringing about the translation of a number of never-before-published diaries written during the Holocaust.
Her experiences learning about other cultures and becoming adept in foreign languages have instilled in her an ability to communicate despite barriers, she explains. On a campus, being able to speak multiple languages – for example, understanding the needs and priorities of varied groups such as faculty, students and community members – pays off.
Shipley credits the 1991 book “Getting to Yes” by Roger Fisher, William L. Ury and Bruce Patton with shifting her approach to academic and public administration. Instead of win-lose, she became a believer in continuing discussions, listening attentively and trying creative approaches to come to a solution that provides a win for all involved.
Case in point: Earlier this year, Shipley worked with Shepherdstown Mayor Jim Auxer and others in the community on a plan that it is hoped will ease the perennial lack of parking spaces for shoppers and other visitors to the town.
In mid-March, university and the town unveiled an agreement that will give the public the chance to park at no cost in the school’s student lot at the corner of Princess and High streets from May 1 to Aug. 1, during holiday breaks and on weekends starting at 5 p.m. Fridays through the academic year.
“It might seem like a small development, but it actually adds up to a lot of time – 260 days out of the year – when anyone can park on campus,” Shipley said. “It’s not a complete solution, but it’s a step in the right direction. There’s an immediate gain for the town, and that came about because we said, ‘What can we do differently here?’ ”
Shipley said she’s excited about a number of long-range projects at Shepherd, including a new master plan for the campus that would encourage students to get to class on foot or by bike.
“The idea is to make walking a more pleasant proposition,” she said. “The fact is, we’ve grown so much, it’s unlikely we’ll ever have enough parking spaces to allow every student to park and make a quick walk to class in the way that might have been possible years ago.”
In other news at Shepherd, Gat Caperton – owner of Gat Creek, a handmade furniture company in Berkeley Springs and the son of former Gov. Gaston Caperton – was recognized during last week’s meeting of the university’s Board of Governors for his three years of service as the board chairman.
Shipley noted that Shepherd and the board have benefited from Caperton’s business and marketing acumen. “As board chair, Gat’s signature accomplishment was Shepherd’s master plan, for which he provided insight and guidance,” she said. “We appreciate his exceptional leadership skills as well as his enthusiasm for and advocacy on behalf of Shepherd.”
Caperton has served on the board for eight years.
Mark Rudolph was elected as the incoming board chairman, with Marcia Brand serving as vice chair and Dr. John Younis secretary. Chad Robinson was sworn in as the newest member of the board.
The board OK’d a 1.5 percent pay increase for employees as well as a $1,000 supplement to full professors. The funding comes from budget reductions combined with a salary appropriation from the state.