THE SHEER ENERGY OF MARILYN SHEERER
Hard work, intellect illuminated ECU’s path during a pivotal era
By Steve Tuttle
ECU News Services
Provost Marilyn Sheerer, who steered the university through SACS reaffirmation of accreditation while cutting budgets and sparking creation of the Honors College, says she will step down at the end of the semester, take a retreat year and then return to the classroom.
Sheerer has served as the university’s No. 2 administrator since 2007. Previously she was dean of the College of Education for eight years. She is one of several women Steve Ballard, now in his 10th year as chancellor, early on tapped for his leadership team, and the first to step down from the Executive Council.
Sheerer started as a high school English teacher after graduating from Bloomsburg State College in Pennsylvania. She earned a master’s degree at Syracuse University and a Ph.D. at Ohio University. She was a department chair at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania and Northern Illinois University before coming to East Carolina in 1996.
“I don’t want to retire because I don’t know what I would do,” she says. “I am serious about wanting to retool and I need time to do that. I bought a new computer (to organize teaching files). I feel obligated to come back here or teach in another UNC institution.”
Sheerer says she and her husband plan to relocate to Wilmington where her daughter and two grandchildren live. She also has a son in New York City who is helping her organize teaching materials on her new computer.
She hopes to return as a full professor in ECU’s higher education doctoral program. That’s the route back to the classroom blazed by former Chancellor Richard “Dick” Eakin.
Often compared to the Energizer Bunny for her infectious energy and enthusiasm, Sheerer—who is barely 5 feet and rail thin—is known for an even temper, a dogged determination and an engaging smile.
“I have seen her walk off one of the world’s fastest speedboats and back into the office for another five hours of work with just a smile and a laugh about the interesting places her leadership role takes her,” says Kylie P. Dotson-Blake, a faculty member in the College of Education.
Ballard said Sheerer “has made a huge difference for ECU.”
“She is largely responsible for initiating huge game changers at ECU, including the Honors College and the expansion of the Department of Engineering. Most importantly, she is an exemplary team player and colleague to all of our academic leadership,” Ballard said.
Proud of the Honors College
Sheerer was present at the founding of ECU’s now-booming Honors College. “Without Marilyn’s foresight, persistence and leadership, the Honors College would not exist nor would it be the best model for honors colleges in North Carolina,” says Marianna Walker, who became dean there in July 2013.
“I’m not sure I knew at the beginning what an impact it would make,” Sheerer says. “We collected all this data that showed we were losing a lot of bright students who came here, did well, and then transferred someplace where they would be more academically challenged.
“We needed to do something to increase the academic profile of the institution, which would change the image, and I think the Honors College has accomplished that.”
Sheerer is admired across campus even though she often was the bearer of bad budget news. Tighter budgets require heavier faculty teaching loads and other belt-tightening measures recommended by the Program Prioritization Committee.
In an era of escalating tuition rates and student debt, Sheerer believes it’s important for the university to remain focused on graduating students on time, which puts demands on the curriculum. “The bottom line is that we are committed to providing the courses that students need to complete their degrees,” Sheerer said.
Another project was creating ECU’s first University Manual, which required a rewrite of the Faculty Manual. Walker was chair of the faculty during the long and strenuous process. “I applaud her for her dedication to shared governance and for her ability to collaborate across faculty and administrator lines,” Walker says.
Among Sheerer’s recent initiatives is ECU’s new bachelor’s degree in university studies.
“Austin (Bunch, senior associate provost) and I started it to help some of these sophomores and juniors who can’t get accepted into their majors. A lot of our majors have an entrance requirement of a 2.5 GPA, whereas the university standard is 2.0. So what do you do if you’re halfway through college, have a passing GPA but can’t get accepted into a major?”
If those students pursue the university studies degree, they are more likely to remained engaged academically and more likely to graduate, Sheerer says.
Connecting women to opportunities
Sheerer quietly has coached a group of younger women faculty who now occupy emerging leadership positions.
Dotson-Blake, the faculty member in the College of Education, is one of those mentees. She said that for Sheerer, “leading is as natural as breathing; it is just what she does. She makes connections, identifies resources and maps the assets in her community as easily as most people consider where to go for lunch.”
“She has a way of connecting women to one another and to new opportunities,” says Elizabeth A. Swaggerty, another mentee.
School of Communication Chair Linda Kean says, “One of Marilyn’s greatest strengths lies in her candor. I have always felt as if she speaks her mind and gets straight to the point. I like that no-nonsense approach because it feels very honest.”
Sheerer came to East Carolina as chair of the Department of Elementary and Middle Grades Education, becoming dean of education one year later.
While she was dean the college won two national awards for excellence in teacher education. She smiles and a laugh escapes recalling those years. “That was back in the day when we had money—of course we didn’t know then that we had it—and I rarely had to say no to anything.”
Sheerer notes that she became provost at the start of the national recession when state appropriations began falling, “and now we prioritize every dollar.” She doesn’t complain. “We should be held accountable. We can do more with less.”
Many will say her greatest achievement was creating among the largest online degree programs in the UNC system by partnering with community colleges to train schoolteachers for the region, and then obtaining funding for the initiative from Wachovia Bank.
“I remember approaching (N.C. Community College President) Scott Rawls when he was president at Craven Community College, and I said, ‘if I put an ECU faculty member on your campus and we did a partnership around preparing teachers, would you give me some rent-free space?’ And he did. Suddenly, it became possible for a lot of people who were in these local communities—a lot of them were teacher assistants, bus drivers—to get a four-year degree and stay there as classroom teachers.”
‘I feel lucky’
Bridging the mental gap between her provost’s responsibilities and her roots in the classroom often is a challenge, Sheerer says.
“One of the things that this position has to deal with is the perception of the faculty that there is this big difference between administrators and faculty. I have never felt that I have made enough progress in narrowing that gap. I don’t know it’s any different here than elsewhere; I just thought I could do a better job at that.”
Sheerer sees seismic shifts ahead. “I think tenure is at risk,” she says. “I’ve been put on the Board of Governors’ Post-Tenure Review Committee. And it’s clear they want more teeth in post-tenure review. So, if the faculty are about trying to protect tenure, they better do a good job of reviewing people.”
She says decisions about most things, including tenure, too often turn on a dollar. She mentions the time about four years ago when the ECU Board of Trustees, over the objection of the SGA, voted to raise the student activity fee. The extra revenue would go toward the Olympic Sports Complex.
“All that stuff we have (in the Olympic sports venues) is wonderful, and I admire Terry Holland, but I can show you labs down here that are inferior. I like sports but I do think that we need to keep it in perspective, so I was really disheartened that the board voted the other way. I think that was a bad signal.”
Another thought comes, and she waves her arms as if to embrace the whole university mall.
“What this place will look like five or 10 years from now will be completely different. We won’t have nearly as many students on campus, filling up that big football stadium. Most of them will be watching that game on TV at home, registered as DE students!”
Then with a finger she flips those worries away and the smile is back. She knows she worked hard, made a big impact and is leaving a legacy.
“I feel good about having been here. I feel lucky.”