Students and faculty have had to adapt to many different personalities in Shippensburg University’s administration over the years. This year Charles and Colleen Patterson have transitioned into the roles of interim president and first lady of Shippensburg University.
First-year students may have been caught off guard when Charles Patterson, SU’s interim president, gave his personal phone number out to the audience at Convocation in August. However, after almost two decades in higher education, direct connection seems to be second nature to Patterson.
President Patterson’s top priority has always been the students. He explained that the goal of administration is to support students and faculty.
“We are here for the students; they are not here for us,” Patterson said. “Any way we can serve our students and our faculty to the best of our ability is our focus. If that means giving out my personal cell phone number to the students who feel like they have that need to reach out to the president can do so willingly. [They] have that ability to bring to light some of the challenges that they may have or some of the successes that they have.”
An administrator giving out a personal cell phone number was unprecedented and surprising to many students. Yet, SU’s president uses his cell phone so students can easily access him should the need arise. This line of communication has become normal for the president. “It may be unique to some, I don’t view it as unique, I view it as a really good tool to maintain connectivity,” he said.
With access to him, students have reached out in the past during times of personal crisis. Patterson was able to let the student know they were supported and helped them find the right resources they needed in the moment.
However, he sometimes just has good conversations with students. Patterson shares his number not just with current students, but with parents and prospective students. Direct involvement doesn’t end with him, as his wife, Colleen, makes just as much effort to know and interact with students.
Colleen noted a time when she was the one to give his phone number to hundreds of people. When her husband was stuck on a flight, he asked her to give a welcome address to prospective students and their parents. Colleen thought that it would only be a handful of people, however it was an audience of about 200.
She offered to the audience exactly what she knew that Charles would if he were there: his phone number. “Colleen showed up to open house and told everyone that was there – 200 families – to immediately text me and when I landed there were 80 texts waiting for me... and I responded to everyone,” Patterson said. “Having that connectivity allows them to understand [that] we anticipate their arrival; we look forward to them coming and continuing to be successful here at Shippensburg.”
“I think as a parent,” Colleen said. “Parents are sitting there at an open house and it’s reassuring to them, [they think] ‘this is nice, I have the president’s number, if I’m going to leave’– some of these students come from hundreds of miles.”
Over the years, the Patterson’s have taken on a pseudo-parent relationship with many of their students. This role can be especially helpful for the first-year students and those who are returning and readjusting to in-person learning.
“We like that connection to students,” Patterson said. “That is really an aspect of the role our family plays that has brought us to Shippensburg, because as we looked at Shippensburg, we saw that connectivity that exists… that is kind of what drew us to Ship. That connection to students is something that has always existed.”
Colleen’s relationship with the student body comes partly from her experience as a parent. “I’m a mom, so I always think about what if my son wasn’t five minutes away from me? What would I want to see from a president and his wife on campus?” she said. “And [we] make sure the students are taken care of and can come to us when they need to.” The Patterson’s passion for having a special connection to students is a display of how deeply the pair truly care about the SU community.
These values can be seen when the Pattersons connect with students and attend student events on and off campus “I try to be at any student events that I can be a lot of time,” Colleen said, “If Charles can’t make it to something and he’ll ask me to fill in.” Her husband chimed in that typically she is already at the event anyhow. The pair try to attend every sporting event that they are able to. “Saturdays get a little hectic because in football season we went from football to volleyball and then to basketball,” Colleen said.
Colleen in particular can be found at most campus events. She also walks their dogs Oliver and Sweetie twice a day around the campus. Students often stop to say ‘hello’ or to pet their dogs, she said.
Another way Colleen is active in the SU community is through the Career, Mentoring and Professional Development Center. She donates her clothing to the Professional Dress Closet, where students can go to get clothes for interview which they get to keep. She has also “gotten the opportunity a few times to help dress them for the career fairs we have at the university.”
Administration can be a very draining line of work where many become jaded and detached from the classroom and community on and off campus. Patterson has worked in higher education administration for most of his career yet seems to still be absolved from the usual disconnect. Though he pointed out that it can be challenging. “The pressures of higher education not just in Pennsylvania but across the country have required faculty and staff and administration to do more with less many times,” Patterson said. “Balancing that has been sometimes difficult, but the role of the president in that sphere — that’s the job.”
Those who put so much energy and passion into their work like President Patterson, are often susceptible to burnout. The president and first lady have built a support system for themselves in order to keep from becoming disgruntled administrators.
“I think we both balance each other; you know, if he’s at the office until 10 o’clock, I’m like ‘time to come home,’” Colleen said. Being a part of student’s lives is not just a job to them, it is a lifestyle — it is what the two enjoy doing, she explained.
On Sept. 14, 2021, The Slate published the article, “That’s what it’s all about: a conversation about racism” in which Ian Thompson, a guest contributor wrote about an experience he shared with a first-year SU student. Thompson explained that a first-year student had decided to leave SU only a week after the semester began. The student was transferring colleges because of the intense racism he had faced in a few short weeks. Shippensburg’s president expressed that this article connected to him on a personal level because he wished he had been able to offer support to this student.
“I think we failed,” Patterson said. “We failed to address the needs of a particular student who was having a difficult time and instead of reaching out to an administrator or to counseling or to some avenue of support, that student left this campus and may never return.”
Even with the many resources for students on campus, this article highlighted the lack of support that many students feel when transitioning into college life, specifically regarding issues such as racism and homophobia.
“Typically, [when a student decides to leave the university] it is more than just one issue,” Patterson said. “So, what levels of support could we have given that student? What other options could there have been rather than to just leave? I felt that we didn’t have the opportunity to intervene and give that student the support and options [that] I would have liked to see us give them.”
Resources do not always solve student problems and the best choice for that particular student may have been to leave the university, Patterson said. Still, he wishes he could have reached out.
“I wasn’t here for a long time, but if someone thought, ‘Hey, I’ve got the president’s cell phone number let’s reach out to him’ we would have taken steps to make sure that student was afforded options,” he said. “Maybe that student did have an opportunity to reach out and to take advantage of those resources — maybe not — but what I wanted to make sure that student had the options, and it just didn’t feel like those were afforded.”
Recently the president’s office sent out an email regarding hate at the university. “Hate has no home here at Shippensburg,” President Patterson said. Signs with that quote have popped up around campus as flyers and yard signs. “Hopefully, that’s really clear now, when in the past maybe it was not as clear,” he said.
In campuses across the country, many students and faculty are often displeased with the approachability and communication with administrators. President Patterson agreed that this is often because of an administrator’s lack of good communication.
“I have taken an intentional effort to break down those barriers and to communicate directly with students either through The Slate or through my email exchanges with students or giving out my cell number; it’s important that students hear from the administration,” he said. The president also took steps to maintain student and faculty voices and to make sure that the administration hears them clearly.
He described the difficulties students expressed about returning to in-person instruction, and the issues faced in quarantine or isolation.
“We listened to the voices of the students, and we went back to the core faculty and to our administrators and academic affairs and talked with them about what accommodations could be made,” Patterson said. “We made sure that we had maximum flexibility to the extent possible on that topic.”
Shippensburg University’s interim president has made a lasting impact on students in his short time at the university. The Patterson’s devotion to the SU students and faculty is creating a more open and approachable administration. “We are challenged with new things to tackle, but new opportunities to make the institution stronger and that’s what I like about this role as president,” he said.
“The thing about being in administration is [that] it’s never the same job twice in any given day,” Patterson said. As he and Colleen have transitioned into their roles at Shippensburg and integrated themselves into the events around campus, students have benefited from their great care.
Editor’s note: The interim president and the first lady of Shippensburg University have established themselves as an approachable and attentive resource on campus. If you feel inclined to reach out to President Patterson via text, be sure to identify yourself in the message. To keep up to date with Charles and Colleen Patterson follow their social media accounts, @CEPattersonJr on Instagram and Twitter as well as @colleenp222 on Instagram and @FirstColleen on Twitter, respectively.