Chancellor's perfect exit from UCCS

Pam Shockley-Zalabak

Everyone thought the news would come with major fanfare. The only question was when. Those who care about the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs knew the day was approaching when Chancellor Pam Shockley-Zalabak would announce her departure.

But surely her moment would become a splendid event, pulling peers and dignitaries as well as Front Range media. When you've accomplished as much as Shockley-Zalabak has over the past four decades at UCCS, especially since becoming chancellor in 2002, you deserve that kind of adulation.

Then came the stunning surprise. No public gathering, no well-choreographed program, no bright lights and buzzing media. No taking advantage of special occasions such as a graduation ceremony. Instead, on the late Friday afternoon of Dec. 16, after the fall graduation ceremony, Shockley-Zalabak sent an email to the UCCS community. She had decided to retire as of Feb. 15, 2017, and she wanted to inform and thank the UCCS family first.

Shortly thereafter, CU President Bruce Benson posted an online statement confirming Shockley-Zalabak's retirement and appointing Venkat Reddy, dean of the UCCS College of Business, as interim chancellor.

We found out and posted it online Saturday morning. Other media didn't report it until later Saturday or Sunday.

You could call it Colorado Springs' biggest news story of 2016, and you wouldn't be wrong. Yet the way it came out, without even a single heads-up phone call to any media, made many of us fellow journalists — it was, after all, Shockley-Zalabak's initial profession — wonder if something might be wrong, particularly a health issue, to influence how the news unfolded. Sorry, but that's our basic professional first instinct.

After a week of talking to sources from every corner of UCCS, several conclusions are clear. First, nobody needs to worry about the 72-year-old chancellor having health problems. To her, this wasn't about trying to create headlines or a media event. And though we'll find out more in days ahead, Shockley-Zalabak had no interest in making a spectacle out of her exit, such as giving a year's notice and taking a long, glorious victory lap. She also wasn't about to clean out her desk early — instead, she continued working long hours last week even with students on holiday break.

Various people inside UCCS have told a remarkably similar account: Shockley-Zalabak had been preparing the faculty and administration for the day when she wouldn't be around anymore, though she never hinted at her exact timing. She wanted to make sure certain important projects and priorities were squared away. But nothing was scripted. Nothing.

One development, however, probably did help Shockley-Zalabak decide. This fall, UCCS has gone through a grueling ordeal of sorts. Every 10 years, universities lucky enough to be fully accredited must go through the scrutiny of earning another 10-year stamp of approval, in this region by the Chicago-based Higher Learning Commission. To describe the task as vital to any institution's future, UCCS included, would be a massive understatement.

The evaluation covers every aspect of any school's program: degree offerings, faculty, financial stability, strategic planning and more. It requires submitting hundreds of pages of documents, worksheets and internal assessments. In mid-November, five upper-echelon administrators from other universities came to UCCS for the intensive on-site portion of the review. But this wasn't about spending hours with the chancellor and letting her make the case. It involved talking and listening to others in group sessions, seeing various offices and departments for themselves. Part of that visit included hearing input from the community at large.

Don't think for a minute that reaccreditation is smooth and easy. Such might have been the case years ago, but that led to a crackdown and more stringent standards. Many universities across the country have lost their accreditation, and that impacts everything from student recruitment to fundraising and grants.

UCCS won't know its official outcome from the Higher Learning Commission until later. But early feedback and signals must be positive, because the indication from multiple people is that perhaps the chancellor was waiting only to clear that hurdle before setting her departure date.

All of this makes total sense now, revealing the kind of person and leader Shockley-Zalabak truly is. It never was about her, only helping UCCS reach new heights without ever losing sight of the future. By that measure, and any other, Pam Shockley-Zalabak has reached her professional pinnacle.

And that makes it the right time to say farewell.