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Eight Years at Shepherd - Shipley Reflects on Her Time as President

Liz McCormick
West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Shepherd University President Suzanne Shipley came to the school in 2007 after working as Vice President of Academic Affairs at a small university in Baltimore.

Before that, she was a teacher for 20 years at universities in Ohio and then in Arizona, but she says she never imagined working in West Virginia.

Now some 8 years later, Shipley has stepped down from her post to take a new position as president of Midwestern State University in Wichita, Texas.

Shipley says the first time she and her husband set foot in Shepherdstown, the Eastern Panhandle community that houses Shepherd University; they instantly knew it was a place they wanted to be.

Her love for the town and the community was just one reason Shipley applied for the post as president of the university eight years ago. But that quickly translated into a love for the small, public liberal arts school and Shipley began to make changes she hoped would improve it, including turning Shepherd into a COPLAC campus. COPLAC stands for Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges, a special designation only 29 schools in the nation hold.

In 2009, Shipley got her wish and Shepherd was added into the COPLAC system which helps the school promote their liberal arts philosophy to not just parents and students, but also lawmakers and other state and national education leaders.

Shipley says receiving the COPLAC designation was a triumph, but she says struggles as well. A small school with only around 4500 students, Shipley says one of the earliest challenges was to create a stronger sense of school pride.

“When you teach four classes and you have as few staff as we have to help you, and as much to do, and as little funding, people just didn’t know how far we could really go, and so I felt a lot of my job was to enhance our reputation and our potential, and the first step in that was COPLAC, but then the second step was probably identifying people to help us apply for grants and external funding, because what I wanted to show the faculty and the staff in the academic areas is that if you get out and compete, you have something other people want,” she noted.

One of Shepherd’s current goals is to match its liberal arts strength with professional strength, and Shipley says the school just approved its first PhD program; doctor of nursing practice.

She says she's excited about where the university’s professional fields are going, but they are also focusing in on expanding international programs, recently hiring the university’s first director for international initiatives.

Over the past few years, state lawmakers have cut the budgets of many universities in West Virginia, and Shepherd was no exception.  Shipley says over the last three years Shepherd has seen enrollment drop, new expenses begin to pile up for various projects, along with less support from the state. However, Shipley says things are starting to get better.

“So what’s happened in the past year is our enrollment has turned around, the state is still reducing its support, but less dramatically than it did. We’ve paid off the buildings that were part of the utilities and operational focus. The Martinsburg campus has been launched, so we have a new audience of students who are working adults, and that’s going well, our graduate programs are growing.”

She says while the budget cuts were difficult, she doesn’t feel the state singled Shepherd out in any way but that the school got an equal share of the pain.

“So I think we have good times and we have bad times as public institutions, and I think that those reductions were really hard for the state to make, but they were locked into very few choices. You can’t, in West Virginia, you can’t reduce public education in the Pre K to 12 sector, so that leaves roads, prisons, healthcare, and higher ed, and to balance the budget, they needed to do that.”

Despite the struggles that come with leading a small public university in a state that’s struggling financially, Shipley says she will miss Shepherd and the community that supports the school so fully.

Shipley begins the next chapter of her career at Midwestern State University in her home state of Texas on Monday, August 10, 2015.

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