Shippensburg University is preparing to say “goodbye” to its 17th president, Laurie Carter.
Carter is departing the university at the end of June to take on the president position at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. She began her tenure at SU in 2017, arriving at the same time as the class of 2021.
Carter sat down with graduating Slate editor-in-chief Hannah Pollock on May 3 to reflect on her time at SU.
Prior to her April 20, 2018, inauguration, Carter and SU hosted the “17 Days of Kindness,” a series of interactive community events. The initial event kicked off with a flash mob, and continued to a food drive, ice cream social and more.
Now as she prepares to leave, Carter and the campus community are holding the 17 days again, with events including a blood drive, service days, community clean ups and food and school supply drives.
“I think it’s really significant to the world — kindness matters,” Carter said of the event’s significance to her and the community. “And a little kindness goes a long way. It really softened the community, brought us together in so many ways. And I thought it appropriate for us to end in the same way, really focusing on how we treat one another and that mutual respect.
Most of this year’s graduates arrived on campus at or near the same time as President Carter, who was leaving her position as executive vice president and university council position at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Kentucky.
In the almost four years since, SU has accomplished a lot. Carter said she is proud of the things the campus community has accomplished by working together. But shared governance is at the top of her list of accomplishments.
“The way we have been able to work with faculty and engaged other bargaining units in our discussions about the future of the university, has been significant,” Carter said. “And it is going to make a difference in how the university is able to move forward.
Carter turned to focus on student success — the reason why she says she works in this profession.
“I am a student-centered president — I love the students. This is why I do what I do and why I am here. And to be able to make a meaningful difference in the lives of students has really been significant,” Carter said.
She touted SU’s 6% first-year retention rate and first-generation college student program. Almost 50% of SU students are first-generation college students, according to Carter. She said the program provides support to not only the student, but the family as well.
When asked what her overall proudest moment at SU was, Carter simply replied, “This year.”
She noted how the past year was challenging and the feeling of starting out the fall 2020 semester hoping to make it to Labor Day, then through September, until reaching the end of the semester.
“It speaks to the testament of how we have been able to work together. Faculty, staff, students, all across the university leadership everywhere, saying, ‘We can do this, but we can only do it if we're working together and keeping the focus on the students,’ and I could not be more proud,” Carter said.
While the COVID-19 coronavirus may have physically separated the campus community during the past year, Carter reflected on the events the university has held in the past like Homecoming, Welcome Week, Alumni Weekend and Parents and Family Day.
“I love homecoming. It is really the bridge between the present and the past and the opportunity to engage with so many alumni and participate in events across campus. There is just so much Ship pride and energy on campus during homecoming, that it is hard for that to not be one of my favorite days,” Carter said. “But I also love our Welcome Week program, the idea of welcoming students into the Shippensburg University community and allowing them to develop a sense of comfort here. And it is after a summer where the campus is kind of quiet. It is you know, bringing life back to the campus, as part of that important cycle.”
And with the good times also comes the difficult bumps in the road. Carter has led SU through the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) System Redesign in the search for financial sustainability, while also facing other difficulties within the campus community. When asked what the hardest part of her job at SU was, Carter did not list any particular event or challenge.
“I think the hardest part is having folks understand that bumpy times come with any large organization — and that it is OK. And if we continue to focus on doing what is right for our students and for the university, it will continue to be OK,” Carter said.
“Dr. King has one of my favorite quotes, it is ‘the true measure of a man is not where he stands in times of comfort and convenience, but in times of challenge and controversy.’ And we have had some challenges and some controversies. And I have always stood on the side of students. And so, I think that is what folks have to understand. Very often, when something challenging occurs, folks focus only on that as opposed to on the whole. And what we have been doing on the whole is really good work, so that our students can be more successful and that more students can be more successful. And so, we have to get through the challenges and the controversies, but always focus on the good and our goal.”
Carter said if she were able to give herself advice when arriving at SU, it would have been to “breathe.”
“There were moments during those challenges. It was really just trying to go through it and get through it and help everyone else breathe,” Carter said, comparing the experience to being on an airplane and putting on one’s own oxygen mask before helping others. “I think sometimes, as president, you spend so much time taking care of others that you sometimes forget to put your oxygen mask on.”
In a recent PASSHE Board of Governors meeting, Carter asked her colleagues to make an effort to diversify each university’s council of trustees, so they are more representative of the students they serve.
“I think it's important for every university in this country to make that change, if they haven't. A leadership team should represent the people it serves. And if it doesn't, it can't represent them well. Diverse viewpoints really add to the richness of any experience,” Carter said. “And so, if you have a homogeneous group of leaders, they're not likely to fully understand the lived experience of folks who are benefiting from their leadership. And so, it's really incumbent on all of us to make sure that as we look around leadership opportunities, that it's inclusive, that includes voices that can speak for all constituents. Because if you don't have that, then you simply cannot be doing what is in the best interest of those individuals, because their voice is not at the table.”
Carter said the people and the campus community are what she will miss most about Shippensburg.
“I am so fond of so many people here, and I am so grateful for their support, for their council, for their guidance and for their hard work on behalf of the university,” Carter said. “I will forever be grateful for this experience. I have learned so much from the people at Shippensburg University and gained so much from this experience. And I truly hope that I'm leaving a legacy that speaks to the message I sent during my inauguration, that we're able to make waves because waves take us places, carry us to new heights and are powerful enough to break down barriers.”