Shirley M. Collado will take office as the ninth president of Ithaca College on July 1. During a recent visit to campus, she participated in a wide-ranging interview, touching on her past experience and her hopes for the future of IC.
This is part two of the two-part interview. In part one, we discussed the way in which Collado’s personal story influenced her leadership philosophy. In part two we discuss some of her signature strategic achievements, her views on key issues facing higher education, and what she sees as Ithaca College’s most compelling strengths and opportunities.
I’d like to start with your own research and teaching specializations. How has clinical psychology informed your work in higher education administration?
After I graduated from Duke, I became deeply interested in mental health care as a system and acutely aware of how educational disparities lead to inequities in mental health care and health care in general. So I took a leap of faith and made what could have been an unpopular decision: I decided to continue teaching in the classroom as a psychologist while running The Posse Foundation, one of the most comprehensive college access programs in the country. I felt called to that, and it was by far one of the greatest things I’ve ever done in my career. I found that my training has influenced how I develop people, and how I understand the complexity of issues that students grapple with in college.
In all my other jobs I have tried to stay in the classroom and teach. As demanding as it has been to teach one course a year in my administrative and nonprofit roles, being in the classroom has kept me close to my field, and I always say to people that students keep me honest. Having that proximity to students and having that part of my brain work with students outside of my administrative roles has really enhanced my ability to understand what students and faculty experience, and that has been very valuable. I hope I will get the chance in my presidency at some point to team-teach a course, so I can learn more about Ithaca College students from inside a classroom.
You’ve led a number of efforts to bridge the curricular and extracurricular aspects of college education. Why is this important to you?
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 that way. They come to us as whole people—complicated, rich, dynamic people—and I believe strongly that the institutional framework needs to meet that reality in ways that it hasn’t been in higher ed.
We’re finding more and more students come to college demanding a curriculum, residential experience, extracurricular activities, internships, and engaged ways of interdisciplinary learning that don’t divide those roles up. I think that’s a critical part of a great college or university.
I believe that anybody working at a residential undergraduate college—faculty or staff—should be seen as a potential mentor and educator to a student. One example from my own career is a residential program known as The Commons at Middlebury. It’s tied to the students’ first-year seminar and their academic advising, and it’s led by members of the faculty working right alongside professional staff.
One of the biggest things that drew me to Ithaca College was knowing that the community had embraced what it really meant to mentor and advise and support students. But I don’t want that to come at the cost of faculty and staff not having the opportunity to grow themselves. I see that as a major part of my work as president, making sure we are fueling all those pieces of the environment.
What role do you think athletics plays in this sort of setting?
I am a big fan of Division III athletics because it gives students, faculty, and coaches the ability to value student–athletes as students first, while still having a vibrant, dynamic life with athletics. And I think an active athletics culture puts a lot of value on coming together and supporting one another. Student–athletes tend to be very disciplined and integrate their athletic and academic experiences, and at the same time, they know the power of being on a team and being accountable to other people.
I do think that colleges need to ensure student–athletes get all they can from their experience. When I was dean of Middlebury College, I oversaw athletics. My team and I redesigned the new-student orientation program, now known as MiddView. We were one of the few liberal arts colleges in the country to add trips at the tail end of the orientation week—two nights away from campus in groups of 12 to 15 students led by upperclassmen to different parts of Vermont and New York. The groups were based on academic, political, cultural, environmental, and artistic interests, and students would participate in meaningful conversations, getting to know students they wouldn’t normally have selected as their friends.
It was very important to us to figure out how athletes could take part in this full orientation experience, even with their very demanding summer practices and competition schedules. So, we asked them and their coaches to work with us so that they could participate. Athletes who initially were worried about the schedule, or felt that they might be letting their teams down by participating in these trips, came back and talked about how incredible it was to be with a group of students they wouldn’t have normally met. And, other students said they appreciated getting to learn how demanding the life of a student–athlete was. The athletics staff loved traveling with students they wouldn’t usually get to meet. So, this orientation trip ended up being one of the ways we built a more integrated community and got students from all walks of life to spend time with each other in ways that they wouldn’t have normally done. It’s one of my proudest accomplishments at Middlebury.
Would you say you made orientation at Middlebury more inclusive?
Yes. Affordability and access were big priorities for us. A number of liberal arts colleges do trips before orientation. Usually there is a limited number of open spots, and they’re not always inclusive of students’ needs. For example, the programs may all be wilderness trips, without options for students who have mobility needs. Or, all the trips may focus on only one or two types of themes. We wanted a nice distribution of different experiences that could reach all kinds of students, inclusive of interests, abilities, and financial need. And I think this really helped set up students for a successful entry, and a sense of belonging, as they began college. The student government even funded half of the program for the first three years to make the trips more affordable.
What do you think are the critical factors in helping students thrive in college? Are there things that college and universities need to be doing much better?
I believe strongly that all students, regardless of background, should have the ability to be full-fledged members of a community—not visitors, not just surviving, but thriving. And there are a few things that I’ve learned from experience are so important. One is that it matters how you come into a space and what is being communicated to you about your ability to be a member of that community, from the time you are invited to be a student there, through orientation, and into your first days. It’s critical to have a really strong entry point, whether it’s a first-year experience, your residential program, your freshman seminar, or another program if you’re a transfer student. Because it’s important to know when you show up that you matter.
The other piece that has been really significant to me is the use of a strength-based model as opposed to a deficit-based model. I think it’s really formative when students see themselves as coming in with authentic assets that they can contribute to the community. It can be detrimental if, as a student, you come into a space where you’re considered “at risk” or you’re in need of special things or you’re three steps behind the others—as opposed to being a student who is invited in because the community feels you deserve to be there. And that message can come across in a variety of ways: in a website, in a magazine, on the first day of classes.
I have seen so many programs and initiatives that have been well intentioned, but the narrative is so deficit-based that the students don’t actually view themselves as deserving and capable and worthy. It made a difference to me when I thought of myself as a Posse Scholar. It makes a difference to the students in the Honors Living-Learning Community at Rutgers University–Newark, where they feel they are seen as talents waiting to be cultivated and not “at risk” or “inner city” kids in need of extra help so that they can catch up. The psychology of that perception is really important.
Along with all this, students also need more organic opportunities to interact with faculty and staff. There is a separation that sometimes happens that I don’t think is healthy. It doesn’t serve the students well, and it doesn’t serve the institution well.
How have you supported faculty success at other institutions?
One recent example is the Center for Pedagogy, Professional Development, and Publicly Engaged Scholarship (P3) we developed at Rutgers-Newark. It is a major part of our strategic plan that focuses on high-impact practices and 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 have 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 our best faculty.
For example, my husband, A. Van Jordan, is teaching an HLLC course with a faculty member from New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT). So you have a poet and writer, an English professor who is working with a theatre professor on a course that’s titled Cinematic Movement, where students look at how the structure of poetry is in conversation with the structure of film.
We really wanted to give faculty permission to innovate and collaborate in ways that they had never done before. We also required the faculty to think about college success and persistence and what conditions they needed to create in the classroom to make sure that all of these HLLC scholars could thrive and learn.
We also needed to create the right set of conditions for faculty and staff to be the best versions of themselves, professionally and personally. That’s why it’s so important to me that faculty and staff members 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.
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 are the fellows learning how to become successful faculty members, but they’re also mentoring undergraduates to the professoriate, innovating and adding to the curriculum, and contributing 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.
What do you feel are some of the great challenges facing higher education today?
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” field. 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 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 American Disabilities Act, for instance, there is a generation of students entering college who historically never would have made it there. 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.
Is this part of why many major initiatives in your career are built on external partnerships?
Yes. Partnerships are paramount to the future of higher education. The future will require us to change from being a “college on the hill.” There are problems in our society—systemic problems, large-scale problems—that will require us to work together. All institutions have their own unique histories and cultures. That’s valuable. And yet, what we’ve seen in the last decade is the incredible need to build partnerships that will deeply inform the answers to some of the hardest questions that all our institutions and our society are facing.
I think this means not only exploring issues with our “peer group” but exploring what we can learn from those outside of our group as well. For example, the role of community colleges has been transforming higher education for over a decade. Most first-generation college students have their first experience in the classroom at a community college. In the last several years we’ve also seen rapid growth in the number of veterans coming out of the service and back into their communities as civilians. What can four-year institutions, private and public, regardless of size, learn from a model like that?
Institutions have a lot to learn from each other. When I designed the BOLD Women’s Leadership Network in 2016, I wanted institutions that were very different from each other to embrace this initiative around women in higher education. So, we selected a women’s liberal arts college, a co-ed liberal arts college, and two urban research universities, one with 40,000 students and the other with 13,000 students, all led by women. To start BOLD, I wanted four schools that were quite different in their approaches and missions but could work toward a common vision. Together we wanted to create something that would serve as a national model and push all four institutions to do things that they hadn’t done before. Not even a full year into kicking off the program, we have already begun to see results.
Foundations can play a powerful role, too, as external partners. I learned this most recently with the Andrew W. Melon Foundation and the Pussycat Foundation supported by the late Helen Gurley Brown, which funded BOLD. Those foundations are deeply invested in helping institutions do the best they can for faculty, students, and staff in their communities. And more and more, foundations want to see institutions collaborating across sectors, holding ourselves accountable for what we offer students, and equipping faculty and staff with what they need to be innovative and successful for students.
What about Ithaca College stands out the most to you? What most excites you?
I have been really moved by the level of commitment and engagement that I saw from different members of Ithaca College. I am inspired by the openness, the energy, the investment in the future of the college. Anyone who has been connected to IC as a student, as a parent, as an alum, as a staff or faculty member, or as a trustee, all of these people are so deeply moved by the promise of the college.
As we think about the challenges facing the future of higher education in America, I feel there are very few institutions that can boast the kind of depth and dynamic DNA that Ithaca College has to offer. It is a huge advantage for IC to be a college of its size that is largely residential and is rooted firmly in a history in the arts and then expanded into the social sciences, natural sciences, and professional education. IC is a school that doesn’t shy away from engaged learning and from the applied fields, in addition to harnessing the power of a very dynamic, integrated liberal arts core; that’s something that I think a lot of private liberal arts colleges dream of having. Research universities and larger institutions can’t afford to offer up close and personal what Ithaca is able to.
I feel that IC is a community of people who don’t apologize for who they are, who are very proud of what they’ve developed, and who want more people to know and be part of it. To do that and still remain affordable, especially for middle-class and low-income families, is really critical for remaining viable in higher education over time. I also think there is a huge advantage to being where Ithaca College is located: a booming college town with another major institution of higher education as its neighbor and in a region where there is so much promise for modeling what a dynamic college environment should be like. I’m excited to leverage that with some great support from members of the Ithaca community.
What do you have planned for your first weeks and months on campus?
I’ll of course be putting a lot of time into getting to know the current leadership team and making important decisions about how we will work together starting that first semester. But I want to start meeting community members at Ithaca College and in the local area right away, too.
I’m eager to begin working with faculty and staff across the whole spectrum of experiences, from individuals who have just recently joined the college to individuals who have given decades to the college and have very deep experience. I want to hear why people have chosen to make their careers at IC.
I’m hoping to understand the governance structure and get to know the different groups that help make decisions on behalf of the college constituencies. But I recognize that I’ll need to get to know far more people than those who are on the governance councils, too, as they really only represent one piece of how the college works and who influences its direction in ways large and small.
As students arrive for orientation and for the fall semester, I’m hoping to get a lot of time with them, too. I want to find students who may not be in prominent roles but who are the glue of the campus; those who are doing a lot of things.
I think what connects all these things is that I want to hear people’s aspirations. I’m committed to working on what we need to improve, but I’m also very excited to hear people’s dreams and ambitions—from the individual to the department, program, and college level. Themes will emerge from those conversations that will become very salient for me as I think about my own vision and how we can build a collective vision together. So, this is one thing I will ask everyone I meet with: “Who else do I need to know; who else do I need to listen to?”