Shenandoah University has gone through a series of transitions since its founding in 1875. The university moved to its current location in 1960 in Winchester, Va., and evolved from a conservatory to a full-fledged university in 1991 with more than 90 programs across seven schools. Shenandoah University’s focus since then has been to lead the way in terms of programming, academics and facilities, along with creating a sense of culture and school spirit throughout the institution. These goals continue to succeed thanks to the leadership of the university’s 16th president, Dr. Tracy Fitzsimmons, who took the helm in July 2008.
Fitzsimmons leads a university comprised of 3,800 undergraduate and graduate students and found the position as president to be a natural fit. She says she fell in love with teaching when she was in graduate school and eventually became a professor, teaching courses on disaster relief, world politics and Latin American politics, among many others. “When I was a professor, I ended up doing a lot of administrative work and realized what an impact one could have broadly across the university,” she recalls. “It became obvious to me that a really effective academic administrative leader is someone facilitating the great teaching and learning of others. That’s sort of my philosophy of what I hope is an effective president. I’m successful if I can inspire and facilitate great teaching and learning.”
Although she enjoys the administrative work, Fitzsimmons wants Shenandoah University to be a teaching-focused institution, rather than simply research focused. Everyone with academic credentials who works at the university in any capacity teaches there as well, including Fitzsimmons. “I teach a course every year,” she says. “All the deans teach two courses a year. That’s really important in terms of keeping us in touch with why we do what we do; we’re attuned to the academic calendar and making sure we know who our students are.”
Fitzsimmons is the university’s first female president, and she thinks holding this title just affirms Shenandoah University’s position as an open and inclusive institution. “It provides a role model for students, alumni and other members of the community,” she says. “We all know that women can do this kind of job and it’s great when they do actually get to do it.”
Shenandoah University believes in combining many different educational aspects and principles so students can get the most out of their education. The university is equally focused on both professional education and liberal arts as a combined way to learn. “We believe in the intertwining of the two of them,” Fitzsimmons explains. “Lots of institutions are starting to integrate professional training but we’ve been that way since the beginning. We believe students need to have a career they’re identifying and training for.”
An all-inclusive education that prepares students for life outside school is the university’s key focus. “We spend a lot of time thinking about where the future of these pathways are going,” Fitzsimmons notes. “Our goal is to construct curricula so they are prepared for their career when they graduate and what that career could be in another 20 years.”
The university is also committed to combining its philosophies of compassion and excellence. Fitzsimmons says that some philosophies believe that “to have excellence, one must be aloof and not be touched by matters of the heart,” and vice versa. But she says the two philosophies feed upon each other. “We are a broad family here at Shenandoah in the way we care for each other in faculty, the way we care for students and the way students care for each other,” she says. “We have found a way to incorporate that feeling broadly across the campus.”
Fitzsimmons has launched several construction projects throughout the Shenandoah campus. One is a $25 million residence hall program, consisting of five small communities that will house 24 students in each building. Every building will have six four-bedroom apartments, where students will have a private bedroom but be able to engage with fellow students in communal spaces such as fire pits, pool tables and lounging areas. “Communal spaces are where they really engage learning,” Fitzsimmons adds.
A year ago, the university completed a new health and life sciences building to house the school of nursing, as well as the respiratory care, athletic training, biology, chemistry and pre-health programs.
Thanks to lots of input from students and faculty, the building was designed with many community and interactive learning spaces, high-end technology and state-of-the-art laboratories.
“We thought very deliberately about making an architectural statement with the building,” Fitzsimmons notes. “It’s very visible at the entrance to the city and gateway of the university.”
The university is sprucing up the gateways into campus with a new perimeter of low-lying walls, better signage to navigate the campus and a new welcome sign. “We want folks to know that Winchester is an interesting, exciting place,” Fitzsimmons says. “A place where people don’t just want to stop and get gas, but actually want to stay and get to know the town. We want students and families to know we care about them from the moment they step on campus.”
In addition to construction investments, Shenandoah is deepening its investment into its health offerings, such as its pharmacy school and physical therapy program. It is also adding a variety of health care certificates and has plans to add health-related master’s degrees.
For past generations of students, “if you went to high school and college, you were guaranteed to get a job, but now it’s that graduate degree that helps you get the job, so we want to build upon those programs,” Fitzsimmons adds.
From going on charity work trips to Haiti to a 24-hour New York City expedition to see a Broadway Show, Fitzsimmons strives to stay connected to the students of Shenandoah University and spend time with them. She has an open-door policy, where students know they can pop in the back door of her office any time to talk or even come to her house for dinner.
“That’s how I hear news from students, like ‘hey, I passed my organic chemistry test,’ or ‘I’m worried about what’s happening in the world,’” she says. “They all call me ‘Tracy.’ I don’t think that titles are all about respect. I think you earn respect in different ways.”
Fitzsimmons says her students really respect and understand her because she’s a mom of a 12-year-old girl and 10-year-old twin boys and is able to have a professional and personal life balance. She brings her children on campus, watches their soccer games on the weekends and spends as much time as she can with them.
“I think that being a mother has informed who I am as a college president,” she says. “It really informs much of what I do in life because everyone is or was someone’s child. And those people would have wanted their children to be treated with respect, [with] someone to surround them with love and compassion, set high expectations and kick them in the backside when they need it. But also be there to celebrate their successes with them.”
Shenandoah University is committed to compassion, responsibility, advocacy and excellence in the way it operates and supports it students. And it expects that students will take those learned values out into the real world.
“The key is you can’t expect high levels of these things from your students if you don’t display it as an institution,” Fitzsimmons says. “The secret sauce is loving what you do, and I absolutely love what I do. I think our faculty loves what they do and where they do it. And that matters a whole lot. It’s the difference between doing a job and doing a great job for the students.” mt