Q&A With Ithaca College President Shirley M. Collado

It’s semester number one in the tenure of Shirley M. Collado, Ithaca College’s ninth president, but you’d have to look hard to notice she’s a newcomer. Her schedule’s jammed full of meetings with staff, faculty, students, and community leaders. She traveled to Harvard University in July to gain insight and momentum at the Harvard Seminar for New Presidents. And she’s putting together a comprehensive plan for how to build a collective vision for the college’s future. Her expertise and her leadership style has quickly brought visibility and support for IC, too.

She’s been profiled in the New York Times, quoted in a story about first-generation students in The Atlantic, and awarded a $100,000 Genius Grant by Helen Gurley Brown’s Pussycat Foundation “for the betterment of women in education.” All this within her first six weeks on the job.

It’s a fast pace, no doubt, but it’s also one that’s thoughtful, focused, and deliberate. ICView had the opportunity to sit down with President Collado in early August to talk more about her goals for the early part of her presidency, her first impressions of Ithaca College, and her vision for leading IC. 

Q: You’re not quite two months into your tenure at Ithaca College. What has surprised you the most in these early days? How have you gotten to know a new college and a new community?

A: Prior to my start, when I had just been named president at IC, people from throughout the IC community began writing to me, sharing stories about their lives, about their connection to the college. I heard from alumni, parents, students, staff, and faculty. They reached out simply to welcome me and share aspects of the college that were important to them. I was surprised to be inundated with such spontaneous, emotional messages from individuals who feel deeply connected to this place. I’ve spoken to people who’ve welled up with tears of joy when they describe what IC means to them. These moments demonstrated to me what a powerful place IC is, and how much heart it has.

I have been getting out on campus as much as I possibly can, getting to know the buildings and meeting people where they work. I think it’s really important to develop relationships with people in their spaces, to understand where and how they work, and to find out what resonates with them in their everyday environments.

At the time this magazine reaches homes, we’ll be just a few weeks away from the campus’s 125th anniversary celebration weekend. I am fortunate and honored to be starting my time at IC during this important year, and part of my process for getting to know the college has included learning about the genesis of the college and how it became such a complex, thriving institution. The college’s evolution is fascinating to me, and understanding the roots that gave rise to this innovative place where theory, practice, and performance are expressed in such a powerful way shows me this institution’s potential to break new ground in the next chapter of its history.

I am thrilled to be the ninth president of Ithaca College, and I am also honored to be one of three women presidents in the Ithaca area. I join Martha Pollack, from Cornell University, and Orinthia Montague, at TC3; we are all starting our first presidency together this year. This is the first time in the region that three women will be leading these institutions, which serve a very wide and deep group of students from all walks of life.

Q: Your career has emphasized developing collaborative solutions to challenges. How are you using this orientation to inform your presidency and develop your vision for the institution?

A: In my previous leadership roles, especially at Rutgers University– Newark and Middlebury College, I honed a highly collaborative strategic style, which relies on developing a collective vision and strengthening relationships to help realize that vision. It’s foundational to how I work.

I began my time at IC in the middle of the summer, which gave me the opportunity to spend concentrated time with the college’s senior administrators, deans, and trustees. I wanted to get to know my new colleagues as people and gain an understanding of their professional backgrounds, skill sets, and philosophies. And I wanted to begin the work of identifying together a common vision of the kind of learning community we wanted to create—one that’s not siloed, that doesn’t put people into boxes, that allows the freedom to move outside of comfort zones.

During intensive retreats with the senior leadership team and deans, we explored ways to realize, in a concrete way, the kind of collaborative, innovative, high-touch, engaging leadership that we want to see throughout the college and that we all are accountable for. I engaged in the same work with the board of trustees. We all have embraced the expectation that we will push each other and our constituents to blend our expertise and knowledge to encourage shared learning. The idea is that we, as the college’s leaders, will model this behavior and make it visible and significant to all groups on our campus and in our community.

I plan to spend a lot of time this year eliciting feedback from all members of our campus community by asking people to describe the kind of promise that they see in themselves and in the college. Understanding the boots-on-the-ground aspect of IC will not only help me learn about the institution and its community; it will help all of us make progress and move IC forward.

I have been warmly welcomed, and I am deeply moved that people see me as a visionary that they’ve entrusted to be the ninth president of this beloved institution. But the vision can’t be mine alone, or it won’t work. I plan to build highly democratic, highly engaging ways for us to answer important questions together so that together we can design the path forward. That’s not to take any accountability away from me, but there’s no way we can have a meaningful and sustainable impact at Ithaca College if we’re not all working together and moving beyond our usual boundaries. If our path is to be shaped by everyone, then we all can own it and feel pride in our accomplishment. We are all collectively accountable for the future of this college. 

Q: Many of our readers have not yet met you. Can you talk a bit about your background and how your upbringing has shaped your career?*
*These questions and responses are taken from a pair of earlier interviews with President Collado.

A: I was born in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and my parents are from the Dominican Republic. We were a very traditional Dominican Catholic household. I was the firstborn, the only girl, and a big sister to two brothers, whom I raised.

My parents and grandparents were incredibly courageous and hard-working. My father had a fourth-grade education, and he was very proud to run his own business. He drove a yellow cab in New York City for over 30 years. I grew up seeing his hard work—driving people around six days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day. His cab was spotless.

And my mother, who completed high school before emigrating from the Dominican Republic, worked in a factory—the same one her mother and sister worked in when they arrived in the U.S.

Her mother—my grandmother, Elisa—had been a nun in the Dominican Republic. She entered the convent at 16, and, when she was 34, she left the convent because she fell in love with my grandfather. She married him at age 39 and they had an incredible love, but their marriage only lasted 11 years. He died of a massive heart attack when my mother was 11 and her sister was 9. So, suddenly, this woman who was raised in a convent and had very little time as a wife with two girls had to figure out how to survive. She made the heart-wrenching decision to leave her two daughters in the Dominican Republic to build a life for them in the U.S.

Eight years later, after a lot of hard work as a seamstress, she brought her girls to the U.S. She spoke no English the entire time she lived in New York City. And yet she was a community activist, a mobilizer for immigrant rights. She helped individuals who came to New York City just like she had, who desperately needed help to survive and move forward in America.

My own household was very traditional. It had a big impact on me to see this, my brave grandmother, being unapologetically herself and letting nothing get in her way. That kind of presence was very uncommon for a woman, an immigrant woman, a Catholic woman, a Dominican woman, with very little education.

Finding opportunities in spaces that were foreign to me, finding allies in a community, and figuring out how to be multilingual, intercultural, and always fully who I am—I absorbed those things from my whole family but especially from my grandmother.

Q: Ideas of moving beyond comfort zones and engaging with others courageously seem to drive a lot of your work. Why is that? 

A: People do their best work—whether intellectual, professional, social, or personal—when they embrace the discomfort that comes when we share ideas that push boundaries. I speak about creating “brave spaces” on IC’s campus—an evolution of “safe spaces”— and the power of the word “brave” in that context. Brave is what we’re really getting at, because it takes a lot of courage and vulnerability to share your thoughts and values with a group of individuals that you might not know, or who may not agree with or understand you. We cannot have an open dialogue or expect our students, faculty, and staff to embrace this level of interaction without understanding and acknowledging the incredible amount of bravery that it takes to not only speak up but also lean in to the conversation that follows when you do. This is particularly important on residential college campuses, where there is a complex community with many layers of interactions and intersections. Students not only explore and understand their field of study; they play sports, join clubs, study in groups, eat meals together, form friendships, develop opinions, and they do all of this in a close-knit environment that is shaped by faculty, staff, administrators, alumni, and the Ithaca community. I think it’s impossible to compartmentalize the individual academic, moral, and ethical development of students. They do not walk around a college campus compartmentalizing their experiences in that way. They come to us as whole people—complicated, rich, dynamic people—who are experiencing pivotal moments in life. I believe strongly that the institutional framework needs to meet that reality in ways that it traditionally hasn’t in higher ed. If we do not provide the tools and the space to allow for this personal growth as well as high academic achievement, we are not doing our job as an institution of higher education.

This is one of the reasons why I created the BOLD Leadership Network in 2016, when I was at Rutgers University–Newark. I wanted to develop an intergenerational network that encourages talented college women to be authentic, to be courageous, to use their vision and strength as they negotiate spaces inside and outside higher education. BOLD is about young women thriving and finding success as their true selves. It’s also about creating a network where women from all walks of life can flourish as they engage in challenging conversations across identities and encourage one another to be engaged citizens of the world.

I was thrilled to find out in early August that Ithaca College had been selected as the fifth school to join the BOLD network. The other institutions in the network are Rutgers University– Newark; California State University, Fullerton; Middlebury College; and Smith College. By the time this arrives in homes, IC should have its first cohort of 10 junior women in the BOLD program, who will, together, develop their leadership skills, their cultural competence, their ability to facilitate dialogue, and be an innovative, strong presence on our campus. 

Q: Can you talk a bit about how faculty success fits into student success? How have you addressed this connection at other institutions?*

A: It is critically important to create the right set of conditions for faculty to be the best versions of themselves, professionally and personally. That’s why it’s so important to me that faculty have the opportunity to develop, learn new things, and test the boundaries of their work. It’s also important for faculty and staff to see the value of what their colleagues can contribute to the curriculum and the campus climate.

One recent example of my approach to this is the Center for Pedagogy, Professional Development, and Publicly Engaged Scholarship (P3) that we developed at Rutgers-Newark. It is a major part of the college’s strategic plan that focuses on high-impact practices, publicly engaged scholarship, and work among faculty and graduate students. P3 is not only for faculty—including non–tenure track and part-time and visiting scholars—but for graduate students as well. P3 is creating enormous opportunities for graduate students and faculty members to work together to get outstanding preparation for pedagogy, their own professional development, and support for publicly engaged work in the academy. P3 is helping to develop what we call “the new professoriate” for the future of higher ed.

The Honors Living-Learning Community (HLLC) at Rutgers-Newark also contains a variety of faculty development components. We formed a faculty team that created an 18-credit, completely interdisciplinary, very collaborative, very innovative curriculum for the HLLC focusing on a “Local Citizenship in a Global World” theme. As part of that work, we put out requests for proposals to all faculty to create new courses across schools and colleges at the university that were innovative, collaborative, interdisciplinary, and team taught. This course structure allowed faculty to design things together in ways that they hadn’t done before. Faculty members were required to teach with at least one other faculty member or community stakeholder outside their discipline and in most cases outside of their school. This configuration encouraged faculty members to create courses and teach with instructors outside their areas. So the first two waves of HLLC curriculum included courses that involve individuals who are not full-time faculty but are community members who have incredible expertise and get to be educators with the college’s best faculty.

For example, my husband, A. Van Jordan, an English professor and a poet, taught an HLLC course with a theatre professor from New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT). Their course was titled Cinematic Movement, and students looked at how the structure of poetry is in conversation with the structure of film.

Another initiative, the Creating Connections Consortium (C3)—which I designed, developed, and led—expanded the pathway to the professoriate and tested the conditions that needed to be in place for individuals to be successful in their teaching, scholarship, civic engagement, and service to their institutions. Not only do the fellows learn how to become successful faculty members; they also mentor undergraduates to the professoriate, innovate and add to the curriculum, and contribute to the community of scholarship and civic engagement among their peers, while influencing institutions to be better spaces for all faculty to develop and thrive.

Q: Ithaca College has long prided itself on being a distinctive institution of higher education. What are IC’s strengths as you see them, and how can they be used to make IC a leader among its peers?

A: I’m a firm believer in mobilizing individuals to create community across all sorts of categories and create spaces that haven’t existed before. I believe IC can take a leading role nationally in defining what it looks like to be a highperforming, highly supportive learning community that enables everyone to succeed on campus and for the rest of their lives. IC does that so well already and is wonderfully poised to do it even better in ways not yet imagined in higher ed.

The college is perfectly situated as an institution that is not too small and not too large. This means we have a significant number of students living in residence and a significant number of faculty and staff from all walks of life who come together on this campus. We have a beautiful blend of human interaction, learning, and exchange that has a big impact on our students, our alumni community, our local area, and our peers within higher ed. A residential college is a place where everyone is intentional about gathering to learn. Social, extracurricular, academic, and professional lives overlap. This means that the life of the mind is developed, but along with it, students are dwelling in a chosen community composed of intergenerational groups of faculty and staff and students and local community members who have deliberately come together to learn, experiment, and improve themselves. The college-town environment, the close-knit campus community, and the challenging, multidisciplinary curriculum that IC offers—these are all elements that make IC successful and will continue to shape the college’s future growth.

Q: What do you feel are some of the greatest challenges facing higher education today?*

A: There is a significant challenge in balancing the work we need to do to shape the academy for the needs of the future, academically and culturally, with the reality of increasingly tight finances. One thing that drew me to Ithaca was its commitment to remain affordable even in the face of many challenges. Institutions need to remain relevant and prove that students can actually succeed with a bachelor’s degree in the liberal arts or other less “applied” fields. In IC’s case, students have the opportunity to be liberally educated and benefit from the engaged learning experience of the professional schools.

As public institutions are further scrutinized, private institutions like Ithaca College will also be pressured to answer tough questions about the benefits they offer. There may be a day when all community college or public institutions throughout the country are free. If that happens, private colleges will need to rethink how they deliver what they deliver. Plus, as the demographics in grades K–12 shift, we will continue to be pressed as institutions to reflect the experiences of a much more diverse generation of incoming students who wouldn’t have normally attended college before, whether they are low-income students, first-generation students, undocumented students, working-class students, or students with disabilities. Because of the Americans with Disabilities Act, for instance, there is a generation of students entering college who historically never would have been able to attend. It’s wonderful to see such changes in higher ed, but realistically all that diversity, all that change, will really push us in higher ed to change as well, and I think this shift will present great and important challenges to meet in the future. 

Q: One last question: what is the life of a college president like?

A: We talked a lot about this at the Harvard Seminar for New Presidents [an annual weeklong gathering of new college and university presidents from around the country]. There were 49 new college presidents, and it was really illuminating and constructive to be able to connect with a range of people from different pathways who were leading completely different institutions— public, private, large, medium, small, comprehensive, liberal arts, community colleges, research universities. We dove deep into critical topics such as financial leadership, strategic planning, how to build a high-performance administrative team, legal affairs, and shared governance. One thing that surprised me was how much the group also needed to talk about the life of a president: How important it is to take care of yourself. Where and how to find support. How to make sure you are the best version of yourself as a leader while still trying to be a multifaceted human being in the community and a real person with a real life.

The national landscape for college presidents is incredibly complicated, with so many things going on that are challenging in our country. Being a president is very much like being a public official. You are a part of a community of students, staff, and faculty who are deeply invested in the town and the region, who have history there, who have families. There are very high expectations about what the president’s presence in all of this means.

Another big topic for us centered around how we can thoughtfully let our constituents know what we’re thinking and what we care about in a way that pushes them to connect personally with us and with the institution. For instance, how can I, as president, model the kind of respectful dialogue that I believe every academic community should have while still challenging the boundaries of what we expect of society for the public good? That was a big one for me because in order for me to be an effective leader, I have to be able to be a whole person. My job here is to lead authentically, to continue to develop the academically rigorous and personally challenging residential experience that students have here, and to lean in to this moment in my life and in the life of Ithaca College. c ...make sure you are the best version of yourself as a leader while still trying to be a multifaceted human being in the community and a real person with a real life.