Coming Home as President

Well into her career as a university leader, Suzanne Shipley describes the experience of accepting a job in the town where she grew up.

May 23, 2017
 
 
Midwestern State University

It was spring of 1973, and I was taking my first upper-level English class at Texas Tech University. I was also encountering the first female faculty member I’d ever met after two years of study. She introduced herself to us in this way: “I am Dr. Mary Brewer or Mrs. Mary Brewer. Call me either. I am equally proud of both.” In an era all about women breaking boundaries, I filed her statement away, coming back to reflect upon it on a number of occasions in my life.

That life led me to a doctorate in German, launching an academic career that required moving every decade in order to reach positions of increasing administrative authority, from department chair to dean to academic vice president and finally to president. But that life never led me back to my roots in Texas -- until now.

People in academe, like people everywhere, balance public and private demands, and presidents are no different. Our positions are noted for their solitude, the loneliness at the top, the difficulty of finding friends we can trust. That solitude diminishes with time in the role, as we form close and trusting relationships around the excitement of building a strong future for a university many people love. And while I had felt honored to experience that, I had not had the honor of coming home.

As I advanced in my career, my mother advanced in age. She also had taught at Texas Tech, as an instructor of math for education majors. Watching the pleasure and fulfillment she received from teaching led me into the profession, but it was not easy to align geographically with family. Now the time was nearing when she needed me close, when life’s daily demands became more difficult to meet on her own. I began to look for a way to bring the work I loved closer to the family that needed me.

I was fortunate to have found my niche within the community of public liberal arts universities called COPLAC, where faculty members and administrators are increasingly moving comfortably between like-minded universities as they progress through their careers. When Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Tex., announced a presidential search, I was excited to apply and pleased to be selected -- even though it meant leaving the presidency of another beloved university. I believed it would be a move that would connect me to a university ready for my energies and attention and, at the same time, allow me to assist an aging mother. I didn't know how I would align those two roles, but I was grateful for the opportunity.

What I have found in the experience is a new depth and richness to my daily work. It’s not just about seeing my mother often and being able to respond to her needs as a helpful daughter but also about defining a different role as a leader that includes my family. That joy is particularly striking in a career that never before offered the possibility. Today, I raise funds from business leaders whose products were purchased and endorsed by my parents and part of my childhood home. I hear from the pastor who was a major influence on my high school days only to learn he is an alumnus of my university. I’ve welcomed the grandchildren of my elementary-school principal to the president’s home.

Any day can unveil aspects of my private and professional selves coming together. The long road to where I am and what I have become stands out clearly. I am beginning to see how interwoven individual progress is with your upbringing, your surroundings, your supporters.

While presidents are used to being rediscovered online by people from our past through our frequent presence in the news media, it is a whole new experience to meet old classmates at a bike race, in a supermarket aisle, at a nail salon. It is one thing to be recognized as president and quite another to be called out by a college, high school or even elementary school classmate. During the public interview phase for the presidency of Midwestern State University, none other but my brother's best friend from junior high came forward to ask the first question. It was the most terrifying moment of my interview, knowing that my future could be in the hands of someone who last saw me at age 15!

What I have gained by returning to the region where I grew up is the unexpected force of life coming full circle. Those of us who became itinerant academics, chasing foreign topics in far-off lands, have often been unable to enjoy the intense connections forged by the local history expert or by colleagues returning to an alma mater as a professor or staff member. But now I can experience that unusual side of academe: a coordinated life. I can enjoy hosting family in the president’s home for major holidays and escorting my mother to church each Sunday, where it is likely she and I will face questions about my most recent editorial in the paper or segment on the local news broadcast. She has never seen me in this light and seems delighted to watch me navigate public opinion in the ways so common to us as presidents. I certainly hear from her when her friends at the retirement home think the goal for our comprehensive campaign is too high or the idea of building a football stadium on campus is folly. Through her, I have constituents in a whole new college demographic ages 90, 100 and beyond.

For these and so many other reasons, now, fairly late in my career, I can proudly proclaim to students and stakeholders alike: I am a university president and a daughter, equally proud of both.

Bio

Suzanne Shipley is president of Midwestern State University and a former president of Shepherd University.

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