Dudley-Eshbach: ‘We’ve become more inclusive’

It was way back in October when Salisbury University made the announcement that Dr. Janet Dudley-Eshbach would step down this June.

No one saw it coming.

The plan, the university said then, was that Dudley-Eshbach would take a sabbatical, during which she’ll be an adviser to the university and new president, and then return to the classroom in 2019 — most likely teaching Spanish at SU.

The university’s only bilingual president, Dudley-Eshbach called her tenure “a labor of love.”

“After 18 years of getting to know the people of Salisbury University and the larger community, of getting to know the many alumni, I care deeply about what happens next. I think it’s important that there be a good fit with the next president,” she said.

During the sabbatical, she said, Mayor Jake Day has ideas for her to get involved in the community. And, she plans to return to activities she enjoys – playing guitar, spending more time with her grandchildren and traveling with her husband.

Once she made the decision to step down, she said, “I felt 50 pounds lighter.”

“As president, you always have something on your mind. Things are always happening. They happen on holidays and weekends, so it’s kind of nonstop.”

Dudley-Eshbach’s leadership has been transformational. She was aggressive in all aspects of her job, from curriculum to enrollment to infrastructure. Just the buildings that she won approval for through the Maryland General Assembly would be enough for a permanent and positive legacy.

Her strategic vision resulted in the university’s growth in size, reputation and private support. When she arrived, the campus had a student population of 6,400 — now, it exceeds 8,700. She has worked to make the campus more reflective of the demographics of Maryland: Since she arrived, the number of minority students has more than tripled with one in four now from diverse backgrounds, up from 11 percent in 2000.

In recent years she has worked aggressively on town-gown relations. Outreach and civic engagement are now clearly a part of an SU education.

Her outreach has resulted in SU playing a key role in Downtown Salisbury’s revival — the university foundation’s receipt of the Gallery Building will allow eventual construction of the new Center for Entrepreneurship.

Additionally, the SU skyline has been transformed by state-of-the art facilities including Conway Hall, Perdue Hall, the Henson Medical Simulation Center, the Sea Gull Square residence-retail complex, the campus’s first parking garage, renovated fitness center and residence halls, and the reconfiguration of the university athletics complex with new softball and baseball stadiums, soccer and intramural fields and tennis courts, all grounded by Sea Gull Stadium, now lauded as one of the best in NCAA Division III athletics.

The jewel in the crown has been the award-winning Guerrieri Academic Commons, a $117 million center and library-of-the-future which has elevated student use to record levels. Altogether, during Dudley-Eshbach’s presidency, the university has expanded from 59 buildings to 89, with some $350 million in new facilities. The footprint of the campus also has grown significantly, from 114 acres in 2000 to some 220 acres today.

SU’s eighth president president sat down for a farewell interview with Salisbury Independent and reflected on her hits, misses and projected what her successor will face.

Q. How has the transition gone?

A. Very smoothly, I’m happy to say. Chuck (Dr. Charles Wight) has been great to work with. He and his wife, Victoria, have been to Salisbury and already have a good feel for the University and surrounding community. A transition team has been in place for months now, and I’m confident President Wight will arrive and not miss a beat.

Q. You seem shocked by all of the accolades and events in your honor.

A. Yes, I really had not expected all of the tributes, outpouring of support and good wishes from so very many people. It’s been a privilege to serve these past 18 years as Salisbury University’s President, and, you know, each day you just plug away, working hard and doing the very best you can. Along the way you make tough decisions and sometimes let people down. But it seems everyone, on and off campus, is taking a big-picture look back and saying, “Wow, together we’ve achieved so much during Dudley-Eshbach’s tenure as President.” It’s been heart-warming.

Q. Has any of this made you wish you could change your decision?

A. No, not for one minute. My goal in my career was to be a faculty member of Spanish and Latin American literature and culture. I began teaching college at the age of 25; I’m now 65, and for all but six of those 40 years I’ve had little time for teaching and working directly with students. Instead, I’ve held one administrative position or another. I’ve been a president for 22 years, when the average tenure of a university president is about 6. The stress is tremendous, the workload extremely demanding. I’m ready for my sabbatical leave and, afterwards, look forward to new challenges and opportunities. My husband has supported me throughout my career as an executive, and he’s eager to get his wife back!

Q. What are your impressions of your successor?

A. Chuck, as he likes to be called, is great! He’s a warm, thoughtful, extremely intelligent individual. He’s a good listener and will be extremely supportive of students, faculty and staff. He also has some new ideas for furthering the presence of the University in downtown Salisbury. An experienced administrator, he’ll step right into his role here with very little learning curve. It feels good to know the University will be in such good hands after June 30.

Q. What challenges will he immediately face?

A. Salisbury University is in good shape, fiscally and otherwise. But given the demographics of our region, he’ll need to continue to focus on student recruitment and affordability. Because SU gets far less general fund support from the State as compared to other public colleges and universities in Maryland, we aren’t able to offer as much financial aid as compared to, say, College Park. But in terms of the quality of our academic programs, graduation rates and other performance outcomes, we are every bit as distinctive as Maryland’s flagship and the other institutions for which we compete for students.

The demands of a residential campus may be somewhat unfamiliar for Dr. Wight, as Weber State is largely non-residential. So he’ll want to get up to speed quickly on issues relating to housing, dining services, health services and the rapidly increasing demands of our students for counseling services.

During my tenure, SU has experienced a bit of a building boom, adding 30 new facilities since 2000 and dramatically increasing the footprint and attractiveness of our campus. Yet, there’s not a major new building in the University System’s capital projects queue for about five years. A challenge for President Wight will be for him to keep the momentum going in terms of the development of the physical campus. His success on this, and other fronts, will depend a lot upon the success of the soon-to-be-announced new, major fundraising campaign.

Q. How would the challenges you had to address when you started compare to what he’s up against?

A. Without a doubt, when I arrived in 2000, some folks were thinking “Can a woman do the job?” I hope I’ve laid that to rest! I also was immediately faced with ‘town-gown’ issues, in the sense that relations between the campus and surrounding communities were strained. We’ve done a lot to turn that around. Also, in 2000, little progress had been made in creating a campus community that was better representative of the demographics of our region and the State. Today SU is much more inclusive. 27 percent of our students are from previously underrepresented groups, and our faculty and staff are more diverse, as well. The University today is less inward-looking; students have more opportunities to study abroad and, on campus, our students hail from 60 different foreign countries. We are doing a much better job of preparing all our students for the global society in which they’ll live and work.

Salisbury University President Janet Dudley-Eshbach and Salisbury Mayor Jake Day.

Q. You have a very visual legacy of new and needed buildings – but you also have a legacy of success in the classroom.

A. Running a university is all about the academics. Salisbury University was already strong when I arrived on the scene in 2000, and we’ve built our academic reputation substantially since then. Even in the leanest of budget years, when layoffs were necessary, I protected the academic side of the house. 12% of last fall’s entering freshman class was admitted through the Honors College, established during my tenure. We have the highest pass rates in the University System of Maryland on exit exams such as the NCLEX, the licensing exam graduating nursing majors must take. Our programs are fully accredited. Today, undergraduates may major in nearly 30 percent more fields of study, and graduate students have a wealth of expanded options, including SU’s first two doctoral programs. New academic divisions include the Honors College and College of Health and Human Services. We’ve grown in enrollment from 6,400 to 8,700 since I took the helm; yet, our class sizes are still small and our admissions standards have increased. We’ve fought hard for additional resources, both public and private. Success in the classroom is at the heart of everything we do.

Q. Salisbury was always a Town With A College, now it’s feeling more like a College Town.

A. We’ve come a long way toward building strong, positive Town-Gown relations. I made several key decisions early in my presidency: I revised the Student Code of Conduct so that it applied to all SU students, whether they lived on or off campus; I established the Town-Gown Council as a means of addressing the concerns of area residents. We’ve invested in downtown Salisbury with the Art Gallery and soon, the Center for Entrepreneurship (made possible by a gift from Dave and Patsy Rommel), Eastern Shore Regional GIS Cooperative and perhaps other University offerings will be located downtown. Students have been key in our efforts to demonstrate that we care deeply about the larger community, as thousands over the years have participated in community service projects, cleanups, etc. via “I Love Salisbury” and “The Big Event” year after year. A big shout-out here should go to Salisbury Mayor Jake Day. He has done an incredible job of helping to build the relationship with the University. The expanded bike routes and enhancements to the Route 13 corridor near the University are a couple of examples, things that would not have happened without Mayor Day’s leadership.

Q. Are you glad you stayed in one place a long time or do you sometimes wish you had gone on to lead one or two other bigger institutions before retirement?

A. Absolutely glad I stayed! It takes many years to make dreams and strategic goals become reality; what we’ve achieved here could not have happened if I had been a short-timer. And “fit” has been so important in terms of my tenure here. This is the size, type and quality of public institution of higher education where I thought I could do some good. I always wanted to land here; in fact, I applied for the Salisbury State University presidency back in 1996 when Dr. (William) Merwin got the job. My husband and I are both native Marylanders and people who love the Shore.

Q. You plan to take some time off and then come back and teach. Will that really happen?

A. I sure hope so! Yes, I need some time to decompress, to unload some of the built-up stress. I’m excited about having more time for my loved ones. And I’ve been aching to get back into the classroom for many years now. So those are the plans. At the same time, new opportunities are already arising. I’m doing some consultant work, and want to be involved in community service of some sort. I’ve been given so much, and I want to give back.

Q. I’ve always enjoyed how you can be deadly serious one minute and so fun-loving the next. Are your emotions always that way?

A. Yes! I’m generally a very happy person with a sense of humor that, frankly, sometimes is not appreciated.  I recall at an early alumni gathering giving a report on the growing international flavor of our campus. I commented that students and faculty here hail from many foreign countries … including New Jersey. It was a joke, but within a few days I received an angry letter from two alumni from that state who had come to the event. I try to be cautious, but I do think in some ways I break the mold — the traditional image of a university president often is that of a dead-serious gentleman with knitted brow. I don’t knit, but I do have a few more wrinkles as compared to 18 years ago. Fortunately, my wrinkles are mostly smile lines!

SU President Janet Dudley-Eshbach throws out the ceremonial first pitch at the Salisbury University baseball team’s home opener this spring. The opening of the new Sea Gull Baseball Stadium completed a series of significant improvements totaling more than $40 million to SU’s athletics complex.

Q. Have you made a lot of friends here?

A. I’m fortunate to have many special work colleagues and a few good friends in the larger community. But the old adage, “It’s lonely at the top,” is very true. A university president must take a cool-headed look at what may be in the best interests of the institution, and vow not to “play favorites.” I’m certainly not aloof, but I have wanted to protect my privacy and integrity. And the reality is that the heavy burden of a university presidency today means that little time is left to build friendships. I do enjoy meeting people, and one of the pleasures of the job is the wide diversity of individuals I’ve met, from very generous donors to alumni with interesting life experiences, political leaders at all levels or fellow music aficionados … A university attracts those with a love of learning, and throughout my adult life I’ve felt privileged to be part of such a community.

Q. What are you proudest of?

A. The fact that SU is now recognized widely as a Maryland University of National Distinction. The academic reputation of the University has grown dramatically. Once a “fall-back school,” students who apply now know that they must post strong high school grade point averages and SAT scores to be admitted. Obviously, the physical appearance, the facilities and footprint of the campus have changed dramatically, as so many visiting alumni tell me, but what is more important is the fact that we’ve become a more diverse, more inclusive, more compassionate learning community. A place where values, and not just knowledge alone, are important. We graduate students who will become productive, clear-thinking citizens in a society that unfortunately seems to put less and less value on personal integrity, civil discourse and compassion for others.

Q. What possible opportunity did you miss out on?

A. That’s a tough one. I feel that generally we’ve made the most of what opportunities were there. Perhaps I wish we’d made more progress establishing a greater presence for the University in downtown Salisbury and in the beach communities. As more and more people retire on the Shore, there are opportunities for non-credit lifelong learning and fundraising that are just beginning to develop.

Salisbury University President Janet Dudley-Eshbach and former Peninsula Regional Medical Center President Peggy Naleppa.

Q. Was there a period when your job here wasn’t fun?

A. Wait a minute … Is the job supposed to be fun? Just joking.

Most days I have enjoyed leading the best University in the Galaxy! But of course there have been dark days. The early years of budget reductions have left some scars. And student crises have arisen that have made me truly sad for all that young people must deal with today. And, after all these years, I have grown especially weary of all the trips back and forth across the Bay Bridge, attending administrative meetings that haven’t always proven to be useful. I never had enough time just to walk around campus informally, to sit and chat with students and faculty. I’m looking forward to being able to do just that.

Q. What has Jim Berkman taught you?

A. Hmmm, that’s an interesting question, one I’ve never gotten! I’d say it’s the power and success that comes with not accepting anything but the best in my own performance and values and in others.

Q. What will be your fondest memories of the Eastern Shore?

A. I’m not leaving! I love the culture and environment of the Eastern Shore. The people, the beach … crabs! Ours is a region of traditions and also new opportunities. Husband Joe and I have lived here longer than anywhere else, and we are happy here. I hope to have sand between my toes for many years to come.

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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