Article by Jenny Arnold, published Monday, June 8, 2015 on goupstate.com
Colleen Perry Keith came into the top post at Spartanburg Methodist College as a pioneer six years ago.
She was the first woman, first non-clergy and first Catholic to become president at the 114-year-old private United Methodist college, and she battled breast cancer shortly after her first year on the job. Now, she’s off to chart a new path at a larger university with three campuses, as president of North Carolina’s Pfeiffer University, a private, United Methodist-affiliated college.
Keith has mixed emotions about her last day, which will be June 26.
“I’m excited but sad,” she said. “This was my first presidency. You get attached to a place.”
Keith said she felt her major roles as president of SMC were to advocate for the college through public relations and to work on fundraising.
“Spartanburg Methodist College was a well-kept secret,” she said. “People didn’t know who we were. I feel like they do now. The college really needed someone to go out and tell the story.”
To do that, Keith felt she needed to get involved in the Spartanburg community. Over the years, she’s worked with many civic groups and organizations, including the Spartanburg Art Movement, Arts Partnership of Greater Spartanburg, Spartanburg Area Chamber of Commerce, Greer Education Foundation, Habitat for Humanity, Mary Black Foundation, College Town, Rotary, Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System Hospice, S.C. Independent Colleges and Universities and the National Association of Schools and Colleges of the United Methodist Church.
“Service is a thing here at SMC,” Keith said. “If I’m not doing service, how can I ask faculty, staff and students to do it? Plus, it’s fun when you see a Habitat House go up. You want to be part of things.”
Keith said she felt embraced by Spartanburg. Because of her years of service, Wofford College presented its Mary Mildred Sullivan Award to Keith during Wofford’s graduation ceremony May 17.
“This is a community that’s very warm,” she said. “They want people to be successful.”
Keith was known to dine with students in the campus cafeteria, learned their names, invited student groups to her home and she accepted their friend requests through Facebook. She can point out students in a photo of the 2012-13 basketball team that went 30-0 and can tell you where each team member is now.
She began attending most of SMC’s sporting events and used Twitter to root for the Pioneers.
“That has helped to raise the profile of the college,” Keith said.
As the first woman at the post, it was a different kind of leadership for SMC.
“The big challenge I always face is the line between mom and college president,” said Keith, who has a son.
But that maternal lens, Keith said, has made it easier to handle “helicopter parents” and the mistakes of students.
“Eighteen year olds are going to go stupid sometimes,” Keith said. “You have to demonstrate some grace and take that as a teaching moment. We do a really good job helping students figure out who and what they are. They’re already strong. They come here to get stronger.”
Yvonne Harper, public information director at SMC, said Keith took her roles as CEO, academic leader, bridge builder, chief storyteller and even chocolate chip cookie baker at SMC very seriously. But the students always came first.
“It’s about the learner, the student at all levels (for Colleen),” Harper said. “It’s about her core commitment to access, to inclusion and opportunity for all who desire an education. This has never been about her, but it is always about our students and how they must be prepared and ready to serve.”
Just as Keith was settling in and getting acquainted with the college and Spartanburg — the year ahead included the launch of a major fundraising campaign for a new academic building, Ellis Hall — Keith learned she had Stage 1 breast cancer.
It was so early in her term as president that during her first of four rounds of chemotherapy she wrote her inauguration speech, and she wore a wig for her inauguration. Students rallied around their president.
Keith didn’t have medical leave, so she went to work every day during her treatment.
“I had 800 students — 800 reasons to get up in the morning,” she said. “So what do you do? You get up and go to work.”
Students, faculty and staff alike appreciated Keith’s open-door policy, with psychology professor Mary Jane Farmer calling Keith “one of a kind” who was a positive influence and gave solid direction at SMC.
“She initiated action and maintained an open type of leadership,” Farmer said. “She knew her faculty and staff by name and students were given the privilege to talk to her anytime, anywhere. She will be sorely missed. SMC’s loss will be Pfeiffer University’s gain.”
Keith has watched students grow and develop during their two years at SMC, She’s also enjoyed watching new professors come into their own as teachers.
“We do a really good job helping students figure out who and what they are,” Keith said. “They’re already strong. They come here to get stronger. When you watch a new professor become the kind of teacher you want to have here, to watch that development over time — that’s neat.”
As a farewell gift, SMC faculty and students unveiled plans for a fountain, dedicated to Keith, to be built in front of Ellis Hall, the classroom building constructed during her tenure. The plans were announced during a reception June 4 for Keith, during which Converse College President Betsy Fleming read a proclamation from Spartanburg Mayor Junie White declaring June 4 as Dr. Colleen Perry Keith Day.
Before coming to SMC, Keith had served in various higher education leadership roles, including student service, program development, teaching, fundraising and administration, including a decade at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio. She was executive director of development at Ohio University before coming to SMC.
She received a bachelor’s degree in political science from the State University of New York at Binghamton, a master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh in educational counseling and her doctorate in higher education administration and student affairs from Ohio State University.
She’s in the process of moving to Misenheimer, N.C., where Pfeiffer is based. The university also has campuses in Charlotte and Raleigh, with 1,800 students. One of her first tasks as president will be growing the enrollment to at least 2,000.
For SMC, Keith would like to see improved science labs, as many students are interested in health science majors, and a fitness center built on campus. But she feels like she’s leaving the college in a good place, with strong enrollment and financial stability.
“I don’t feel like I’m leaving anything undone,” Keith said. “It has been a wonderful experience. This is a great place with great students, great faculty, great staff and great trustees. They’re all here for the same reason — to implement the mission.”