by William A. Bowden
The longest and, in many respects, most remarkable presidential tenure in Transylvania’s 230-year history is drawing to a close as Charles L. Shearer prepares to step down from the position he has held since 1983.
When Shearer leaves his corner office on the second floor of Old Morrison for the final time as president, he will leave behind a Transylvania that, by any objective measure, is far better off than the university he inherited 27 years ago.
“During Charles Shearer’s tenure, Transylvania has been transformed,” said William T. Young Jr., chairman of the Board of Trustees.“When he became president, we had an enrollment of 655 students with an average ACT for the first-year entering class of 23, a minimal endowment, and an aging physical plant. Today, the university has an enrollment of approximately 1,100 with an ACT entering average of 26, an endowment of more than $100 million, and a physical campus that has been essentially rebuilt. This transformation has been driven by Charles’s leadership, attention to detail, dedication, and incredible enthusiasm.”
Warren W. Rosenthal, long-time board member and financial supporter of the university, echoed Young’s comments while focusing on the entrepreneurial skills exhibited by Shearer, whose Ph.D. is in economics.
“Charles is one of the most outstanding entrepreneurs I have ever known,” Rosenthal said. “When he was promoted to the presidency, the college was in its worst condition in many years. He put his heart and soul into attacking problems and exhibiting positive results to board members, faculty and staff, and students. The turnaround of this institution, its finances, staff, student body, and entire campus is due to his entrepreneurial qualities and his dedication.”
Political science professor Don Dugi has witnessed Shearer’s entire presidency and believes he has been the right man for the job.“Charles came into the college in one of its darker periods, stayed the course, and leaves the college better in all respects than when he began his stewardship,” he said.
For his part, Shearer is quick to put his achievements in the context of the team effort it takes to achieve the improvement Transylvania has realized under his leadership.
“I’m a lot more comfortable in talking about my accomplishments when we recognize the very generous donors, trustees, faculty and staff, students, alumni, and many other friends of the university who helped make the transformation possible,” Shearer said.
Shearer said his wife, Susan, occupies a unique position among those who have made major contributions to Transylvania during his presidency.
“Susan has supported me in extraordinary ways,” Shearer said. “She’s been a partner with me in attending events, hosting receptions, and helping me make connections. That makes her a great ambassador for Transylvania. And she has been a wonderful sounding board for me all these years.”
In the area of academics, two programs—one that was enhanced under Shearer’s leadership and the other created—have been key to raising the intellectual level on campus.
The William T. Young Scholarship program, created just before Shearer took office and enhanced with an expansion of recipients in his early years, awards four-year full tuition and fees merit scholarships to exceptional entering students. It began with 10 awards yearly, but increased to 25 soon after Shearer took office.
The Bingham Program for Excellence in Teaching began in 1987 and provides substantial monetary awards to professors who have demonstrated outstanding classroom performance. It also provides grants to attract promising new faculty members.
Both of these programs were the brainchildren of the late William T. Young, chairman of the board from 1977-2000. Young’s leadership, and especially his ability to attract major donors to support Transylvania, was crucial to the college’s rebound from its depths at the time Shearer became president. Young interested his friend David Jones, chairman and CEO of Humana Inc. at the time, in joining him to find ways to grow the endowment through their own and others’ contributions, and astute investment management.
“Bill Young not only brought people aboard, he worked to keep them engaged with Transylvania,” Shearer said. “His vision and commitment were the beginning of all that we achieved in later years.”
Rebuilding the campus
Nine new buildings, two new athletics fields, and four major renovations occurred during Shearer’s tenure, the cumulative effect of which was to change the campus landscape in dramatic fashion.
The buildings included the William T. Young Campus Center, Warren W. Rosenthal Residence Complex, J. Douglas Gay Jr. Library, Poole Residence Center, Lucille C. Little Theater, Clive M. Beck Athletic and Recreation Center, Glenn Building, Thomson Residence Hall, and Cowgill Center for Business, Economics, and Education. New playing fields were John R. Hall Athletic Field and William A. Marquard Field.
Renovation projects created the Frances Carrick Thomas Library and the Charles L. Shearer Art Building, brought air-conditioning to Forrer, Clay, and Davis residence halls, and are transforming 40-year-old laboratory space in the Brown Science Center into modern, state-of-the-art learning spaces.
“I love watching students use these new and renovated facilities,” Shearer said. “They have transformed the living and learning environment and made Transylvania much more competitive with other colleges.”
Among the programs that Shearer himself conceived are the summer All-Sports Camps, spring and summer registration and orientation sessions for entering students, and the Pioneer Hall of Fame. The sports camps serve about 450 young people each year, exposing them to a college campus and spreading the university’s image to the Lexington community and region. The entering students event gets them acclimated to the curriculum and relieves stress about which classes they will be able to take in the fall. The Hall of Fame inducts new members during Alumni Weekend, recognizing alumni and others for their contributions to athletics and the university.
Making a plan
Shearer became president after four years as vice president for finance. At that time, the immediate needs of the college—build enrollment and endowment, balance the budget—were so obvious and pressing that there was no need, or time, for strategic planning. That soon changed, however, and Shearer oversaw four renditions of plans—in 1992, 1997, 2003, and 2009-12—that have provided essential direction and focus for the college in recent years.
“As Transylvania has matured, it became important to formalize the process of change,” Shearer said. “I think we have been very effective in engaging all aspects of the Transylvania community in the planning deliberations.”
The scope and complexity of those plans illustrate the many ways in which the president’s job has changed and expanded over the 27 years of Shearer’s service. Today, he travels more to meetings in other cities, including increased responsibilities relating to Transylvania’s gaining membership in 2004 in NCAA Division III. He has been active in the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges and the Annapolis Group, among other organizations. There are also many more student organizations and events on campus that he is expected to attend.
“We are competing now with the nation’s top liberal arts colleges for the best students and faculty members, so the job has increased in intensity and in the breadth of responsibilities over the years,” Shearer said.
Praise for a job well done
When asked for their comments on the job that Shearer has done for nearly three decades, his colleagues on campus and the trustees and alumni in the greater Transylvania community expressed admiration and respect for his loyal service to the university.
“What a blessing Charles Shearer has been to Transylvania,” said board member James E. Bassett III. “His open door policy of welcoming both students and faculty has created an academic environment unique to college life and made Transylvania so special.The 27 years of his stewardship mark the most progressive chapters in the university’s illustrious history.”
Angela Logan Edwards ’91 has known Shearer since she was a 16-year-old prospective student and has related to him as a student, an alumna, and a board member.
“There is almost no distinction in my experiences with him from when I was a student and now as a trustee,” she said. “From the first time I met him, he has always treated me as though I were a long-time friend. Because of the way he interacts with students, parents, faculty, staff, and alumni, every person in the Transy community is empowered to contribute his or her own unique talents to making the university stronger.”
Among the faculty, philosophy professor Jack Furlong offered a testament to Shearer’s character.
“I want to praise an antique quality so much in absence in our social and political lives: Charles’s moral strength. He has often sacrificed expediency, efficiency, and aggrandizement for doing the right thing. I have known Charles to take the hard road, to embrace the unsung but compassionate decision instead of grasping the face-saving, bottom-line option.”
Anthropology professor Barbara LoMonaco especially appreciates the interest Shearer takes in students. “He not only takes a direct role alongside the faculty in advising students, he makes it a point to get to know them—their backgrounds, interests, and ambitions.”
Spanish professor Veronica Dean-Thacker has seen Shearer’s support of the faculty from her first months on campus in 1987.
“I was a brand-new professor at Transy and wanted right away to attend a conference at Harvard to meet with a professor from the Canary Islands interested in helping me get my doctoral dissertation on Pérez Galdós published as a book. I asked the administration if I could go, and they said, ‘Get on the plane.’ That was the dean and Dr. Shearer taking a chance on me as a new hire.”
Staff members Susan Rayer and Jack Ebel ’77 have seen the effect of Shearer’s leadership and support of their particular areas.
“Dr. Shearer recognizes the importance of the internship and experiential education for our students,” said Rayer, director of the Career Development Center. “His involvement in programs like Leadership Lexington has given him an excellent reputation in the surrounding community, and that helps create opportunities for our students.”
As athletics director, Ebel has seen significant changes in his area, from the transition to NCAA Division III to more teams and full-time coaches.
“Dr. Shearer has a real interest in athletics. If a coach has a top prospect on campus, having Dr. Shearer involved increases our rate of acceptance. Coaches are always sending him names with a request for him to call them. A culture has been created where people really enjoy working at Transylvania, and that’s a credit to Dr. Shearer. I would call him the ultimate team player.”
Junior Holly Milburn, who has a work-study position in the president’s office, is a star player on the women’s basketball team and says Shearer’s support of Transy’s teams means a lot to the players.
“I see him working so hard all day long, and then I’m shocked to see him after hours at a Transy basketball game. That’s because he really cares and wants to be there. He’s not going just to see basketball—he’s coming to see us. And that means a lot.”
Senior Jacob Brumfield, president of the Student Government Association, has dealt with Shearer in his student leader role.
“I’ve always felt I can come into his office and talk with him about anything. Even though he is the president, when you’re speaking with him he never talks down to you—he treats you as an equal, and I’ve always appreciated that.”
Senior Caroline Powell is impressed with how Shearer has a way of putting everyone he meets with at ease.
“I’m not sure what personality trait it is that allows him to do that, but any student can walk up to him and I think he would find some way to relate to them and be encouraging toward them. I think that’s awesome, and it really contributes to the small campus atmosphere here. He enjoys doing that. That’s who he is.”
Taking his leave
As his remarkable tenure as president draws to a close, Shearer has many accomplishments to reflect on and feel good about. In the end, though, his thoughts turn to all the people he has worked with to realize those accomplishments, including trustees, alumni, parents, and Transy’s community of faculty and staff that he interacts with every day.
“I’ve had a great faculty and a wonderful staff to work with, and I cherish those relationships,” he said. “The hardest thing for me to realize is that I’m not going to be in this building and see all these people every day.”
Shearer does intend to stay involved with the university by teaching a course in microeconomics, continuing in an advising role with a University 1111 class, and supporting admissions and development efforts where needed.
And though he admits that leaving the president’s office will be difficult in some ways, he looks forward to seeing Transylvania move forward under new leadership in the years to come.
“I think my retirement is an opportunity for the college to celebrate what has happened over my 27 years in office and to say that now we’re getting ready to take the institution even further. My great satisfaction would be that Transylvania thrives and does even better in the future.”