A Constant Presence
Nothing better exemplifies the dedicated, personal role that President Charles L. Shearer plays in the life of Transylvania than the supportive and engaging relationship he enjoys with students, who are, after all, the ultimate reason the University exists.
As he nears the completion this July of a remarkable 25 years as president—the longest such tenure in University history—Shearer can reflect with pride on many accomplishments that Transylvania has achieved over that time with the help of his leadership and hard work. A continuing and significant theme of his presidency has been the priority he always places on the well-being of students.
Anyone who has seen Shearer out and about on campus, eating in the dining hall, or attending athletic events or fine arts performances can see that contact with students is something he seeks out and truly enjoys.
“It’s a part of my job that gives me a lot of satisfaction,” Shearer said. “I like to know as many students personally as I possibly can. By showing them that I truly care about them as individuals, it also conveys the University’s purpose of a very personal and involved approach to their education.”
Art professor Nancy Wolsk, who came to Transylvania in 1978, has observed this trait in Shearer for his entire presidential tenure thus far.
“Charles really likes the students and he keeps up with them,” Wolsk said. “He does all kinds of things that university presidents normally do not do, like the Academic Career Skills class he teaches each year. That’s very time consuming, but the students love him for it.”
In his role as an Academic Career Skills (University 1111) leader, Shearer advises a group of approximately 15 first-year students, who meet with him weekly to discuss their progress in adjusting to the academic and personal challenges of college life. Sophomore Hampton Bourne, from Clarksville, Tenn., was assigned to Shearer’s class last year.
“Dr. Shearer always had a lot of good advice as far as how to spend my time wisely and how to adjust to the little things,” Bourne said. “I had met him before at an open house and a scholarship breakfast and always found him to be a very likable person. He’s very easy to talk to, very polite, and very professional, all at the same time.”
A sophomore is also assigned to each University 1111 class as a mentor, a role that senior Sarah Billiter, from Shelbiana, Ky., has played with Shearer.
“When the first-year students learned that their mentor was going to be the president, I think a lot of them were nervous and wondering what that was going to be like,” Billiter said. “They were very pleasantly surprised to realize he was just interested in knowing that they were fitting in well at Transy and in hearing about their experiences. He went from being someone who might have been frightening because he is in such a superior position, to someone they could sit down with and talk and laugh with.”
Billiter also works with Shearer in her position as president of the Student Government Association, where she finds him to be a thoughtful and helpful resource.
|President Shearer talking with, from left, first-year student Corinne Tuney, sophomore Clay Turner, first-year student Jordan Michael, and junior Stephen Blankenship|
“Dr. Shearer is such a good listener,” she said. “He looks at the issue from a student’s perspective. He has a talent for putting himself in someone else’s shoes. He considers every proposal or idea I bring up and gives me his considered analysis.”
Erwin Roberts ’94, a varsity basketball player at Transy and now an attorney with Frost Brown Todd in Louisville, remembers Shearer from his student days, and has since interacted with him as a member of the Alumni Executive Board and the Board of Visitors.
“Dr. Shearer was my mentor my freshman year at Transy,” Roberts said. “He really took an interest in all of us, and welcomed us to his home for dinner. He was always very supportive of our team. Now I’m getting to see the professional and business side of him, in the way he operates and oversees the University. This is where I’ve really come to appreciate what he accomplishes as president.”
When others are asked for their thoughts on how this talented and much admired person has succeeded for so long at such a high profile, demanding job, one word keeps cropping up—dedication.
“I think the main thing is his absolute dedication to the school,” said William T. Young Jr., chairman of the Transylvania Board of Trustees. “He gives other people a lot of the credit, but I don’t think a lot of them would have shown an interest in, and supported the school, the way they have if it hadn’t been for Charles.”
Long-time trustee Warren Rosenthal has worked with Shearer on many fund-raising initiatives and capital projects over the years. When asked to cite key qualities that have sustained Shearer’s effectiveness over the years, he pointed to his “strong dedication to making certain that the efforts for the best interests of the college and the students are served, and his ability to raise major funds for the endowment and the activities of the University.”
Ann Rosenstein Giles ’75, also a trustee, includes Susan Shearer in her evaluation of the president’s role in Transylvania’s successes.
“President Shearer and Susan’s dedication and caring for faculty, students, and staff bring a real ambience of ‘family’ to the campus,” she said. “He is very tuned into everything that’s going on at Transy, and wants the best for all the parts that make up the school.”
One aspect of his job that undergirds everything the University does is caring for the financial health of the college. With his Ph.D. in economics from Michigan State University, Shearer has been well positioned to oversee the significant fiscal issues. That began during the four years (1979-83) he served Transylvania as vice president for finance, a period that controller Debbie Balles ’79 was also a part of.
“Dr. Shearer put in the internal controls we needed, made personnel changes, and updated the computer system, all so that we have the proper level of accountability for our money,” Balles said. “The driving factor was our student billing—we wanted it to be better for the parents and students.”
As evidence of the long-range, permanent improvements Shearer brought to the University’s financial affairs, Balles points to the yearly audit. “The audit staff used to stay here for months, and now we get everything done in a week,” she said.
“Because of his background, Charles has an excellent understanding of sound business principles and finance, and I think all of that is just critical to operating the University in a sensible manner,” Young said.
As a trustee, Norwood “Buddy” Cowgill Jr. ’65 is impressed with Shearer’s devotion to both education and management. “To be so interested in education, and then to have his great feel for business and management is really an unusual combination,” he said. “Charles makes such complete, well organized presentations at our board meetings that there are very few questions.”
Transylvania’s endowment has seen a dramatic increase over the nearly 25 years of Shearer’s presidency, from $33 million in 1983 to $144 million today. The University is currently engaged in its 225th Anniversary Campaign, with a goal of the $32 million initiative being to increase the endowment by $9 million.
“In the past five years, we have lost our great financial mentor in Bill Young Sr. (William T. Young, 1918-2004, former Transylvania board chairman), and for Charles to be able to carry on in the same fashion with Bill Young Jr. and to raise as much money as he has in our current campaign is, I think, one of his great achievements,” Rosenthal said.
Continuity of support
Transylvania today is in the strongest overall position of its 228-year history, with its highest enrollment (1,153) and largest graduating classes, largest endowment, most well developed physical campus, and largest faculty and student research funds.
Shearer attributes the University’s strengths to a continuity of support from all of its constituencies, beginning with the members of the Board of Trustees, whose leadership and strong financial commitment to Transylvania set the tone for the overall success of the college.
“I think it’s a tribute to the strength of the college that we’re able to engage people of such high quality to help serve the school,” he said. “We continue to evolve, with new trustees, new staff members in key leadership positions, and outstanding faculty members. Transylvania continues to be a place where highly qualified, dedicated people want to work and serve.”
In contrast to Shearer’s early years as president, when pressing needs such as enrollment and endowment growth consumed much of his time, more recent years have seen the college prosper, allowing him to devote time and energy to projects that enrich living and learning.
Many projects have resulted from a series of self-studies and strategic plans, undertaken as part of the college’s reaffirmation of accreditation process. Two very prominent such projects—the renovation of laboratory space in Brown Science Center and construction of a new residence hall—are currently underway and represent the best fruits of planning ahead for the needs of students and faculty members.
Recent years have also seen Shearer being involved in organizations that allow him to spread Transylvania’s reputation far beyond its region. “My job has changed in that I do more association work now, giving Transylvania greater regional and national exposure,” Shearer said. “Like many other liberal arts colleges, we have a variety of association memberships and involvements, on the state, regional, and national levels. The president is responsible for representing the University at these annual meetings, to keep in touch with issues and concerns that affect higher education in general and which may have an impact on Transylvania.
“The nature of the president’s job changes somewhat, but our mission stays the same, that of offering our students the highest quality liberal arts education. One of my goals is to have every alum feel that their degree has appreciated in value over the years. Because in fact, I think it has.”
Shearer also attends alumni events and considers the University’s outreach programs to alumni to be of paramount importance to the future of the college. “The alumni are the living legacy of Transylvania, and their role in the success of the college is critical,” he said.
As she prepares to graduate from Transylvania and become one of those alums, Sarah Billiter has this to say of her mentor:
“I think he really understands and prioritizes the overall goal of this institution, and that’s to provide students with an education they can take and make of it whatever they want, whatever they can dream. He still, over all these years, holds true to why he’s here.”