Dudley-Eshbach details retirement decision

Dr. Janet Dudley-Eshbach, left, with state Sen. Jim Mathias and County Executive Bob Culver. (Photo by Todd Dudek.)

Those who have watched Dr. Janet Dudley-Eshbach closely over the years know two things about her:

  • The Salisbury University president is typically guarded and agenda-focused during her straight-forward encounters with the public;
  • If her audience can somehow get her to drop that guardedness, the leader of the state’s fifth-largest university can be blunt, jocular, deeply insightful and utterly charming.

Having announced two weeks ago that she will step down after 18 years in the president’s chair, she was free to show a public dose of the latter at Monday’s Greater Salisbury Committee monthly luncheon.

In a 30-minute address to the community’s top leaders, Dudley-Eshbach was occasionally self-deprecating, consistently inspirational and constantly blowing the bugle for Salisbury University.

She told some previously undisclosed stories about how she came to be selected by the Maryland Board of Regents in 2000 and reflected on her rise in public academia.

And she broke up the room of about 80 people with a story from her first college presidency in Fairmont, W.Va.

She said that her work as a faculty member at the State University of New York at Potsdam never won her any public attention. That changed when she first arrived in decidedly rural Fairmont.

“I got the presidency and my picture was on the front of the local newspaper – The Times-West Virginian. And I thought, ‘I’ve made it big!’ ”

She continued: “And then, on the next day, the picture on the front of the paper was of two deer. So maybe I wasn’t such a big deal after all.”

A need for change

Dudley-Eshbach stuck to three main themes in her talk: how institutions need change to improve, how top business or institutional leaders often stay in their loft positions for too long, and how much she has loved her time in the Salisbury community.

“I’ve seen (leaders) overstay their period in which they could be optimally productive, and I didn’t want to do that, she said. “I firmly believe that change is needed for growth whether it’s an individual or an institution and I think fresh energy and new perspectives can propel an institution forward.

Know on the SU campus as “Dr. Janet,” she relayed the contents of a recent Atlantic magazine article – “Power Causes Brain Damage.”

“I had to smile when I saw the title of that article,” she said. “It reminded me of when I was a young faculty member – I would joke with faculty colleagues that it was only a matter of time before those who moved into administrative positions lost their intellectual capacity.

“Leaders of institutions – all of us – must strive to be grounded to the reality of others; otherwise, executive hubris can result and organizations suffer.”

There was speculation that Dudley-Eshbach, who will turn 65 in January, would stay on to welcome SU’s anniversary celebration in five years.

“I do sense it’s time for a change and I’ve tried to time my needs with the needs of the institution. I was tempted to stay until 2025 – our 100th anniversary. Then I realized I’d be 71, so I said ‘maybe not.’

“It’s important to get out of administration while I still have a few brain cells left,” she said.

Nearly two decades of growth

When she arrived in 2000, SU had an enrollment of some 6,400 students. Today, that number is 8,700.

“We’ve seen growth without seeing any decline in selectivity,” she said.

Most notable in her tenure has been the addition of top-flight buildings and an enormous expansion of the university’s footprint.

“Residents were concerned about encroachment,” she said, “so we made it a priority to develop (our) East Campus,” as well as southward down Salisbury Boulevard.

The notable buildings that have been added in her tenure include 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.

On East Campus there has been a reconfiguration of the university athletics complex with new softball and baseball stadiums, soccer and intramural fields and tennis courts, all surrounding the new Sea Gull Stadium, now lauded as one of the best in NCAA Division III athletics.

This year, what may prove the jewel in Dudley-Eshbach’s crown – the Guerrieri Academic Commons – opened to rave reviews.

Dudley-Eshbach said she made a priority of interacting with Salisbury’s leaders at the government, business and neighborhood levels.

“We worked hard on Town-Gown relations,” she said. “The university had become an institution that was somewhat inward-looking. I do think some of my predecessors had taken the point of view that what goes on off campus was not their concern.

“That’s not OK,” she said. “We’ve worked very hard and some of you have helped us specifically on Town-Gown matters.”

She said it’s important for the community to also be involved with the campus.

“The campus should be open (to the community),” she said. “We get a lot of tax dollars. So we want people on our campus from the larger community and we want to be part of the revitalization – not just of Downtown Salisbury, but some of these exciting efforts the community is working on.”

“I love Salisbury’

Dudley-Eshbach said she was a semifinalist to replace the retiring Thomas Bellavance in 1996. Instead, her Pottsdam president, William Merwin, got the job. She applied again in 1999, and ultimately succeeded interim president Joel Jones, another mentor of sorts.

“I couldn’t believe it when I got the job as president of Salisbury State University,” she said. “It’s really been a labor of love – I never thought I would be so fortunate to have the career I’ve had.

“I love Salisbury, I’m vested, we’ve got to get the (successor) search right, so that we have a president who can continue to build on the successes of the institution.”

She said a new president would likely be announced in April, following an arduous selection process.

Toward the end of her address, for which she received two standing ovations, the normally strong-as-iron university administrator began to choke up.

“I am greatly appreciative. I’m going to continue to fight for Salisbury University for the remainder of this year,” she said. “As you can see, this has been emotional for me – even when you know you’ve done the right thing.”

Salisbury University President Dr. Janet Dudley-Eshbach speaks with Wor-Wic Community College President Dr. Ray Hoy before addressing the Greater Salisbury Committee on Monday. The SU leader will step down next summer after 18 years in Salisbury.

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

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