Shippensburg University is going through a very transitional time. The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) is in the middle of redesign, the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the world and the U.S. has been going through social and political upheaval over the last few years.
Despite this, the world still turns, and the SU community is faced with another change. In March 2021, Laurie Carter, then SU President, announced she would be leaving the university in the summer. Charles Patterson, then president of Mansfield University, would take her place as the interim president while the search for a new president began.
Students would not meet Patterson until the fall 2021 semester when they returned to campus, fully in-person. As Slate editor-in-chief, I sat down with Patterson last Tuesday for an introductory interview.
Patterson started his work as interim president in July and spent the summer preparing for students to arrive.
Patterson, his wife, Colleen, and their two dogs, Oliver the goldendoodle and Sweety the “small fluff of cotton” Cavachon moved into the Martin house. Their son is attending SU and lives on campus.
Locals will often walk their dogs on campus at SU, bringing joy to their pups and the busy college students who sometimes get to pet them. Patterson said their dogs would be making an appearance on campus quite a bit. “We’re always walking them and sometimes we’ll bring them to events.”
Only a month into the school year, Patterson and Colleen have taken part in campus life. “We have made it to the first football game,” he said, “and we dotted the ‘I’ with the band. That was a great event. We’ve been to First Fridays briefly and have just been making the rounds around the community. A lot of events that you’ll see on campus with our students, Colleen and I will be in attendance.”
Another important back-to-school tradition Patterson was asked about is the weekly Raider Bowls served in the Ceddia Union Building (CUB) each Wednesday. “Yes, I’ve had a Raider Bowl, and I would say it’s quite good.” Patterson said.
The conversation moved to topics of less annual tradition but still vital to the start of the fall 2021 semester. Over the summer, SU announced those on campus no longer needed to wear masks — an important COVID-19 milestone brought about by the opening of vaccines to all — one step towards the university’s “return to normalcy” the school said.
However, amid rising COVID-19 rates and the low vaccination rates of the campus and surrounding area, a mask-mandate was put back into effect one week before students returned to campus.
Many students were left wondering if a “return to normalcy” was in the cards for the 2021-2022 semester. “I’m hopeful that we will [have a return to normalcy],” Patterson said, “and it really is going to depend on the trends that we see in the community and on campus.
“So those trends of vaccination compared with the trends that we might see in our community could allow us to unmask in some settings,” Patterson added. “We’d have to look at the classroom setting to say ‘Is there a greater risk being in a classroom for an hour or so unmasked?’”
The university will have to see if the risks can be mitigated as the semester progresses and address possibilities of unmasking as they proceed, Patterson said.
“Normalcy is about as normal as we can get right now. I don’t view masking as normal necessarily but that means we can come together in instruction in a classroom and still engage with students outside of the classroom by being masked.” Patterson said.
While planned before the mask mandate was put back in place, SU is addressing the pandemic in another way by offering vaccination clinics on campus throughout the semester.
SU community members can stop by one of the several clinics to receive both doses (with an appropriate amount of time between each one) of the Pfizer vaccine. The Pfizer vaccine recently received approval from the Food and Drug Administration, a moment many American have been waiting for before getting vaccinated.
“Trust the science,” Patterson encouraged those who have held off from getting vaccinated. “You see so many people walking around today that have been vaccinated without the adverse effects of the vaccine. I’m one of them, and my wife is one of them.”
Patterson has a bachelor of science degree in biochemistry and his doctorate in biomedical sciences, according to his biography on the SU president’s office website.
“I can say as a scientist, [and] having studied this area it’s really [that] you’ve got to put your faith in those that are developing the vaccines,” Patterson said.
“As we now know [the vaccines] don’t really prevent someone necessarily form contracting COVID-19, but it definitely lessens the impact COVID-19 has on those who are vaccinated. So we strongly encourage vaccination because the symptoms we’re seeing just aren’t those life threatening symptoms that we see in unvaccinated individuals,” Patterson said.
After completing his doctorate, Patterson went into university administration. This path led him to hold several roles like dean, president, foundation executive director and chair person and executive in the U.S. Department of Education Financial Aid.
“It’s a call to service really,” Patterson said when asked about why he decided to go into higher education. “In short, I found that I value seeing individuals be successful, faculty and students, more so than I value myself being successful in that pursuit. I found early on in my career [that] I could have a larger impact in my life and through the lives of others and their successes by being in administration.”
This path eventually led him to SU. Even as an interim president, Patterson is tasked with navigating the university’s path during his time here and leave an impact on the campus. “Honestly, I think this is a great institution. The bar is high, it really is,” Patterson said.
“What I would aim to do is to create a culture that is stable. One where people feel they are part of the conversation, [that] they are a part of moving the university forward, [and that] they feel included doing that. They feel like their voice matters,” Patterson said.
He has spoken about listening to other voices even before coming to Shippensburg, Patterson said. When meetings to handle the transition of presidents began in May, Patterson talked with stakeholders, students, faculty, staff and alumni to identify barriers to success, he said.
Part of the legacy he wants to make is leaving SU better than when he found it. Part of that is identifying opportunities for advancement and making them into part of the strategic plan, he said.
“That [identifying barriers to success] is an important component of any institution because that plan will determine where we put out resources. That plan will determine how we move the institution forward in a very methodical way,” Patterson said.
Unfortunately, like many other universities across the nation, students and faculty alike are faced with hard and challenging times. Over the past several years the SU community has faced racial injustices and incidents, financial burdens and even a deadly shooting. In order to work through these issues and grow, members of the community often come together.
The fatal shooting in the fall of 2019 is an unfortunate marker on the college timeline for many students in the class of 2023 and 2022. In the hours and then days following the shooting, students struggled to get answers and turned to each other for support and comfort.
Many still remember getting an “all clear” from the university the night of and then having classes canceled for safety the next day. When asked how he would support students when issues, injustice and crises occur his immediate response was to have proactive communication.
“There is nothing more fearful than not knowing what transpired,” Patterson said, “And so being as open and communicative as possible is making sure that students understand an event that might have happened. And then providing the resources of the institution to resolve that issue but also to support our students that might be feeling adverse feelings.”
Making counseling and other institutional resources “entirely available at the earliest convenience” to the campus community is a part of that response, he said.
Patterson noted he has already addressed issues on and off campus that have happened at the earliest convince and as openly as possible, he said.
During his time at SU, Patterson said he wants to have effective and transparent communication in his administration. This will help move institutional governance forward and allow him to work closer with faculty
“If we’re not all working together, if we’re not providing seamless communication in an open and transparent environment, then we don’t have the trust necessary to move the institution forward, and that’s going to be a big priority for me,” Patterson said.
Looking into the future of the school year will include being involved with campus life. Patterson is looking forward to homecoming and to having it in-person this year, although some COVID-19 risk mitigation procedures will be in place, he said.
Patterson was asked about the age-old debate in this region of the state — “Sheetz or Wawa?” “I have frequented Sheetz. I don’t think I have frequented a Wawa, not because of choice just because my travels have not brought me to a Wawa yet. Right now, I’m a Sheetz person. I will go on record saying that.” Patterson explained.