Not long after arriving in Salisbury, Janet Dudley-Eshbach recognized a problem in the community and acted to stop it.
The new president didn’t understand why College Avenue switched its name to Beaglin Park Drive after crossing eastward over Snow Hill Road.
Drivers headed to Salisbury University on westbound Route 50 would be better served if the road was named College Avenue up to the highway intersection — it would be a logical gateway to the university, four miles to the southwest.
Dudley-Eshbach sent a letter to the city and county councils pointing all of this out. Dudley-Eshbach was correct, of course — there was no logical, big-picture reason for the street to change names; naming the road College Avenue would add common sense to direction-finding.
Alas, the new president’s idea received the same sort of treatment the Hindenburg did in Lakehurst, N.J.
The local reaction: “Who does this new president think she is?”
Dudley-Eshbach’s retreat on the matter was both graceful and diplomatic. A decade and a half later, the controversy is forgotten. But locals learned then that the new boss at Salisbury University was smart, was accustomed to getting her way and was always thinking about how to put her institution first.
Her apparent go-slow-while-winning-them-over approach has worked well over the years. Respect for the university, in terms of its vital role in the community, is perhaps better appreciated than ever.
Salisbury University, which for so long ranked at the bottom of the state’s list in terms of receiving support for growth and infrastructure, has lately received closer to its fair share.
The university’s financial support from alumni, as well as the Lower Shore community’s movers and shakers, is something to behold — few other state-affiliated institutions raise the money that SU raises; there is a loyalty to the institution — and its president, that most any other college would treasure.
When working with Dudley-Eshbach — who seems to enjoy being called “Dr. Janet” — it is impossible to ignore her self-confidence, her relentless energy and her her jockular persona. The 15 years have proven that this “new president” has presided over an era of unfathomable change, thereby turning Salisbury University into an entity that no one could have imagined.
Q. You’ve been here 15 years. Did you expect to be here that long?
A. The years have flown by, and it seems impossible that this is year 15 for me at the helm of Salisbury University. The average tenure of a university president is about six years.
But my husband and I are native Marylanders, and we feel very much at home here. I consider myself very fortunate to have had the support of the campus and larger community, and of course the University System of Maryland Chancellor and Regents.
Q. How has the university changed during your tenure?
A. Wow, the changes have been substantial. We have hired more faculty and staff to serve a student population which has grown by 2,000.
Our selectivity in admissions and academic program quality have increased dramatically. And we now offer two doctoral programs. The physical campus has changed, with added acreage and new buildings.
Despite our growth, Salisbury University still has a “small school feel,” which is a major factor in our success.
Q. Compare your Salisbury service to your previous leadership roles.
A. My route to the presidency was fairly traditional: From my faculty position I became a department chair, dean, associate provost, provost, and then president.
My first presidency was at Fairmont State University in West Virginia. Salisbury University was already a very, very strong institution of higher learning when I arrived on the scene. We have some of the nation’s best faculty, staff and students.
Much of my success here is due to my longer tenure—it takes time to build the types of relationships that help move an institution forward.
Q. Salisbury University is highly regarded for its alumni support and the ability it has demonstrated at raising money. To what do you owe this success?
A. Fundraising begins with “friend-raising.”
Again, it is about building relationships over time, believing in your “product,” so to speak, and then convincing others that it is worth the investment.
When students have a positive experience, they give back as alumni. And those who have no immediate connection to the University give because they believe in our mission; people are moved to invest in successful enterprises, and SU certainly has proven to be one of these.
Q. There have been some highly publicized incidents over the years regarding rowdy student behavior, but that seems to be contained these days.
A. We have revised our student Code of Conduct to include all of our students, not just those who live on campus.
We work hard to teach responsible behavior. But I remain concerned about binge drinking in particular. And one weekend of good weather can result in rowdy behavior.
It’s a problem we constantly must address.
Q. People often joke that Salisbury isn’t a “college town,” but it’s “a town with a college.” Is that true?
A. It’s unfortunate that Downtown Salisbury is a couple of miles from our campus. Yet we are striving to build linkages with downtown and the surrounding community more generally.
The new bike lanes are a great idea, and other initiatives are being considered.
For Salisbury to consider itself a college town, we need these linkages and others, and a true sense of pride in the University on the part of all area residents. It’s a process.
Q. How well do students mix in the neighborhoods? Is there really anything the university can do about that?
A. Our new two-year residency requirement should help improve neighborhood relations.
We hope that by the time our students are juniors and seniors they will have matured enough to understand what it means to be a good neighbor.
Most of our students are very, very well-behaved, but it only takes one student to give many a bad name. We have been working on neighborhood issues through our Town-Gown Council and other initiatives.
And we sponsor neighborhood clean-up days, when student volunteers dedicate their time to community service projects.
The goal is for us to “show our love” for the larger community and for our neighbors to love us right back!
Q. University Park and Sea Gull Square have been amazing public-private partnerships/collaborations.
A. For years we needed more student housing, in part to preserve the character of surrounding residential neighborhoods.
This was a big challenge, as the University System was not supporting the construction of on-campus dormitories.
So we got creative.
That’s what the public-private developments are all about. Sea Gull Square, a mixed-use facility with retail facilities on the first floor, was designed to serve both students and non-students. The message to the community is, “This campus is here for everyone — come on campus and take advantage of what we offer!”
Q. You’ve overseen the building of several highly significant buildings that have transformed the campus – the Teacher Education and Technology Center, the Henson Medical Simulation Center, the Wayne St. Parking Garage, Perdue Hall.
A. When I came in 2000, the University had not had a new academic building in 12 years, despite the growth in the size of the student body.
Salisbury U was not getting its fair share of the University System’s capital project monies, and I vowed to change that.
There are many hoops to jump through to get a State building approved and funded, and my colleagues and I have become experts at jumping hoops! In some cases, such as Perdue Hall, I’ve needed to secure a sizeable private gift in order to jump the capital projects queue.
Our academic programs have been excellent for years; now, finally, our facilities are beginning to catch up. But we still have needs.
Q. And next is a new library?
A. We are calling the new library the Academic Commons. It will house not only state-of-the-art library spaces, but also the Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture, a faculty center, the Center for Student Achievement, a café, and much more.
It will become a center for scholarship, convocation and celebration, a central meeting point for our campus. It will be over 200,000 square feet, and will be completed late summer 2016.
Q. And major improvements to the football arena?
A. In January construction will begin on a new stadium, also very much needed. With many national championships to our name, we want to build upon our successes.
As an NCAA Division III school, we are unable to offer athletic scholarships, so it is imperative that our facilities compare favorably with other campuses.
The new stadium will offer locker rooms, concessions, quality public restrooms and more seating — all of which have been lacking.
Q. Are there plans yet for the former Dresser site?
A. The site is still owned by General Electric, which purchased Halliburton, which previously purchased Dresser.
Salisbury University very much needs the acreage for future growth, but we don’t know when or even if the property will transfer. Thus, our master plan for the future of our campus is flexible.
We have no immediate plans for the site, though a Fine and Performing Arts Center, complete with new parking garage, sure would look great there!
The center would serve not only our campus, but the surrounding communities as well.
Q. The university’s physical footprint has expanded in ways unimagined just a decade ago. Where might SU expand next?
A. We consider every available opportunity.
We have made every effort not to encroach upon surrounding residential communities; thus, our expansion looks to the east, south, and also, when feasible, toward downtown.
Q. There’s a sense that Downtown Salisbury is on the cusp of a revival and that SU can help that. Do you have an eye toward downtown?
A. Yes and no. A vibrant downtown benefits everyone, including the University.
Many of your readers are already aware that we now operate a branch of our art gallery downtown.
We’re open to considering what makes good sense, but there are barriers to our locating academic programs or student housing downtown.
I hope that the University can find ways to be part of the revitalization of downtown, but I must manage expectations and always do what is in the best interest of the institution. Thus the “no” part of my answer.
Q. Can you talk about your plans/partnerships with Peninsula Regional?
A. The University and PRMC have been partners on a number of fronts for many years. Our allied health programs have benefitted greatly from the proximity and support of PRMC.
Preliminary discussions have taken place about the creation of a medical school or health science center downtown, likely in collaboration with the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and the University of Maryland Baltimore, which already offers accredited medical programs.
Again, there are possibilities for the future, but at the same time there are realities and barriers to overcome.
Q. Do you feel like the local community has a proper appreciation for this institution?
A. I felt this was a real problem when I first came here in 2000, but I think things have improved a lot.
Business owners understand the tremendous benefits the University, its students and employees, bring and, increasingly, as we strive to become better neighbors, longtime residents have become more supportive.
Over the years I’ve seen more individuals and couples who have intentionally relocated here because of the University, its cultural programs and other benefits.
Q. What might local folks not understand about SU?
A. I hope all residents know that we are not an elitist, snobby, ivory tower institution. We are a public university, and we hope everyone knows that the University is here for them.
For those who don’t already do so, my message is this: Come enjoy our athletic events! Come walk our incredibly beautiful campus—we were the first and, for some time, the only campus in the University System to have arboretum status.
And, of course, come to our cultural events: the performances of the Salisbury Symphony Orchestra, the dance and theatre programs—all are truly outstanding and many are free.
Q. Are the political entities – both locally and in Maryland – strong enough to help you and SU fulfill your mission?
A. As a public institution, naturally it’s a challenge to be located in a heavily Republican area of a overwhelmingly Democratic state. That has at times been a huge disadvantage.
The Regents are appointed by the Governor, and never since the creation of the University System of Maryland in 1988 has a Regent held a degree from either Salisbury U or UMES.
But thanks to certain key individuals, such as House Appropriations Committee Chairman Norm Conway, our Eastern Shore is not forgotten.
Q. A recurring concern in these interviews has been a sense that the community here doesn’t have the respect that it should for public education. Do you see that as a problem?
A. If it’s true, then I think the entities – SU, UMES, Wor-Wic and the pre-K through 12 school systems — haven’t done a good enough job of explaining the benefits of strong public education for all our citizens.
We all need to make our case. We should be held accountable for the tax dollars we receive.
Q. The word is out: SU is no longer anyone’s “safety school” for admission.
A. We accept about half of our applicants and the word is out: high school slackers need not apply!
Along with College Park, we are among Maryland’s most selective public institutions. Former President Thom Bellavance talked about Salisbury U becoming the William and Mary of the state of Maryland.
We aren’t there yet, but that ambitious vision may become reality.
We fully embrace the University as a “public ivy,” and the guidebooks and magazine rankings all demonstrate how far we’ve already come.
Q. What are your favorite things about this community?
A. The many cultural opportunities. Getting sand between your toes without having to go too far.
The relative lack of traffic and, by contrast, the many beautiful fields and waterways.
Above all, the people.
From the traditional watermen, to the City and County Councils, to the local residents, business people and the University’s faculty, staff and students, we are a richly diverse community.
Many who leave our region return.
And, as they say, there’s a reason there is no charge when you head west on the Bay Bridge, but do pay a toll when heading east. Our Eastern Shore is so worth it!
Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at email@example.com