While Chadron State College’s spring semester was coming to a close, the 318 graduates weren’t the only ones looking forward to beginning a new chapter in their lives this summer.
Friday, May 11, was the last day in the office for Chadron State College President Janie Park, who is retiring to Red Lodge, Mont., with her husband, Tom.
Since making the retirement announcement, faculty, staff and community members have given Park a lot of praise for her leadership style and the successes of her seven-year tenure.
Park, CSC’s first woman president and the 10th overall, has guided the institution during a period of much success. CSC’s accomplishments under Park’s leadership include enrollment growth, unprecedented fundraising success, program accreditations, improved student diversity, expanded athletic offerings, strategic planning initiatives, recognition from national media, and upgrades to facilities and landscaping.
Park’s announcement came just one month prior to her retirement. She said she discussed her plan to retire with Nebraska State College System Chancellor Stan Carpenter and NSCS board members months in advance, and had developed an exit strategy. The plans included the appointment of Dr. Randy Rhine, CSC vice president for enrollment management and student services, to serve as interim president.
“The last thing I wanted to do was serve an extended time as a lame duck,” she said. “Once you announce the plan to leave, everyone starts looking to your successor or someone else for the answers. I just can’t see putting the campus in that situation for more than a month. Randy will step in and won’t miss a beat.”
Few at CSC know Park better than Rhine. He has worked under Park’s supervision 16 years, dating back to their service at Montana State University at Billings.
Prior to coming to CSC, Park had been provost, academic vice chancellor and professor of biological sciences at MSUB. In 1996, the same year she assumed those roles, Rhine became dean of the College of Professional Studies and Lifelong Learning at MSUB. Rhine was one of Park’s first hires at CSC in December 2005, first serving as an assistant to the president and vice president for enrollment management and student services the following May. His work helped CSC reverse a decline in enrollment that has continued since 2006.
Rhine calls Park a “tough cookie,” who is not afraid to make difficult decisions to ensure the long-term health of the institution.
“Grace under pressure, calm in the storm, jubilant in success, always supportive of those on the frontline doing the work, and there if you needed to talk,” Rhine said.
Park has received praise for her involvement in the Chadron State Foundation’s Vision 2011 fundraising campaign, which raised more than $16 million – more than $5 million over its goal – for endowments, the annual fund and two capital projects. She is hopeful the foundation will take the experience and help the college grow with similar campaigns.
Park said the new Rangeland Complex and the renovation and expansion of the Armstrong Physical Education Building will be a positive impact to the institution long after she leaves. The Armstrong project got a huge boost this spring with a $6.7 million appropriation from the Nebraska Legislature – a development that gave the project wings and proved cynics wrong.
“I heard it so many times. ‘That will never happen. We’ll never get funding for that.’ I always had confidence it would happen. I’m not sure why others didn’t have that confidence. I always assumed that we’d dog it enough to make it happen,” Park said with a laugh.
Connie Rasmussen, executive director of the foundation, gives Park credit for the campaign’s triumph, noting the president not only proposed the idea of a capital campaign, but gladly joined in travels to visit alumni. Park’s genuine care of the campus struck a chord with graduates, she said.
Park credits the campaign, and many other campus initiatives, for increasing the visibility of CSC’s outstanding programs and faculty.
“Our academic programs were solid when I got here. I can’t take credit for that,” Park said. “Through various marketing techniques and other methods, we’ve gained more visibility for our programs. We need our story to get out there, and we’re doing a better job of that.”
Park said her favorite part of the job has been the people she’s met, including alumni, CSC employees and other members of the college community. She’s also enjoyed watching CSC students perform in athletics and fine arts events.
“I’m going to miss the people,” she said. “That’s the part that always sticks with you most. I’ve loved getting out and hearing stories about why CSC is important to people. And the people I’ve worked with are top-notch. They form a terrific team. There’s not much about this job that I didn’t love. The only things that come to mind are budget cuts and occasional personnel issues. It’s part of my job, but certainly not the part that I enjoy.”
The institution faced its share of challenges during Park’s presidency. The early years were marked by a string of bizarre incidents beyond the institution’s control.
In 2006, her first year, a wildfire burned thousands of acres south of Chadron and came within a stone’s throw of reaching the main campus. Other occurrences early in her tenure included the disappearance of a math professor who was found dead in the hills south of campus months after his vanishing, a campus lockdown prompted by a group of Montana fugitives passing through the community, the stabbing death of a student near campus and a vehicle accident that seriously injured six members of the wrestling team.
The president entered the spotlight in fall 2011 when compelled to self-report possible NCAA violations. Despite facing harsh criticism from some, many admired Park for her commitment to rectify a bad situation.
“I have observed her as she has led the college through many times of adversity including the Spotted Tail fire of 2006, several tragic deaths of people associated with the college, difficult budget decisions, and most recently, the football controversy,” said Fran Grimes of Chadron, a 1979 graduate who serves on the foundation board. “She has always acted with dignity and grace.”
The enrollment has grown steadily since Park’s arrival, reversing a downward trend. The campus residency was at a 15-year high in 2011-2012, while online programs for both undergraduate and graduate programs flourished. The enrollment of international students has about tripled since her arrival, and the college is laying groundwork to further expand service to students from other nations.
“I believe that it’s good for us to have a few students on campus from a lot of different countries, than it is to have a lot of students from a single country,” Park said. “It gives us a breadth of diversity for global education.”
Park has strongly encouraged the efforts to make the campus more attractive and eco-friendly. During the past seven years, the campus has gained native plantings, improved signage, extensive renovations to Sparks Hall and Old Admin, a new entrance portal, ‘The Muses’ outdoor sculpture, the Centennial Flag Plaza and improved technology infrastructure.
“The first impression of the campus is really important, not only for our students, but for the community and institutional pride,” she said. “It’s continuing to evolve and will be even more beautiful five years from now. I look forward to coming back and seeing how it’s matured and developed.”
Park’s career in administration came after teaching and research in biological sciences. She taught courses such as immunology, cell and molecular biology, biochemistry, anatomy and physiology.
“I’ve enjoyed the administrative side of academics. It was fun being a researcher and faculty member, but I have really enjoyed the years I spent in administration, as well,” she said. “I’ve had a great career. I’ve done different things at different times, and I’ve enjoyed them all.”
Park also was involved in organizations away from the campus, including terms as chairwoman of the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference’s council of presidents and a member the Nebraska Information Technology Commission’s board of commissioners.
Park was raised in El Paso, Texas, one of two children. Her mother was a telephone operator and her father was employed by the Southern Union Gas Company, which piped natural gas to communities throughout the Southwest. Her sister also achieved a doctorate.
The Parks will reside in the home they’ve owned in Red Lodge for 19 years. It’s an 1886 homestead cabin that they have renovated extensively, and continue to modernize. One of the Parks’ two sons lives in nearby Billings.
Park said she plans to catch up on one of her favorite pastimes, which was influenced by her father, after moving to Montana. She said she hasn’t had time for gardening during the past seven years, and the opportunity to do so this year influenced her decision to retire in May instead of waiting until June 30.
“My father grew up on a farm, and he couldn’t get it out of his system. He constantly gardened around our home and it rubbed off on me,” she said. “I plan to do a lot of it, until I’m sick of it.”
—Justin Haag, CSC Information Services