Departing UCCS chancellor saw change from commuter school to major university

February 15, 2017

UCCS Chancellor Pam Shockley-Zalabak in a UCCS graduation at Broadmoor World Arena on Friday, December 18, 2015. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette

Adopting a pose familiar to anyone who has met her, Pam Shockley-Zalabak peers over the top of her glasses and studies the expanse of the landscape she’s helped shape.

On the top floor of the administration building, her Office of the Chancellor overlooks an evolving swath of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs campus.

“My favorite memory?” she repeats in response to the question. “I have so many.”

Her mind races through the past 15 years of her tenure as chancellor, then takes a sharp turn south, to the ’70s.

The roads around the Cragmor neighborhood were dirt when she arrived in Colorado Springs from Oklahoma.

She began teaching communication courses in January 1976 at the young commuter school occupying a former tuberculosis sanitorium.

Classes were held at night.

“My first class was in a trailer with no heat,” she recalls. “All 98 students wore their coats and gloves, and I thought, ‘What have I done?'”

Forty-one years later, Shockley-Zalabak couldn’t imagine her life’s history book without the voluminous chapters of her time at UCCS.

“I look around now, and it has changed a lot, and I love to be a part of that because this region needs a comprehensive university,” she says. “If you cut the state in half at Castle Rock, we are the only comprehensive regional research university with master’s and doctoral programs in that half of the state. And we take that very seriously.”

Shockley-Zalabak began packing her office a few weeks ago and on Wednesday will walk out of it for the last time. She’s retiring as the 52-year-old campus’ 10th and longest-tenured chancellor, marking what many are calling the end of an era.

“There’s never been any kind of serious acrimony on the campus in the entire time Pam’s been here, and with all the changes, that’s remarkable,” said English professor Ken Pellow, who started teaching at UCCS in 1969.

Shockley-Zalabak is leaving an amazing legacy, said Kyle Hybl, chief operating officer and general counsel for the El Pomar Foundation and a 10-year member of the university system’s board of regents, which governs the four CU campuses and its chancellors.

“To see how her vision and ability to work both inside the world of academia and in the community has helped transform the campus and Colorado Springs is truly impressive,” he said.

Under Shockley-Zalabak’s leadership, UCCS has experienced burgeoning enrollment growth, from 6,851 students in 2001 to about 12,000 today.

The campus has expanded in every possible way, adding dorms and other new buildings, renovating existing facilities, and increasing research and academic programs.

The campus has marched to the east and the west and onto the North Nevada Avenue corridor. A national cybersecurity center, a sports medicine and performance center and a visual and performing arts center are on the horizon. The Lane Center for Academic Health Sciences opened in 2014, with clinics for seniors and other health care services, along with a CU School of Medicine branch.

In all, more than $300 million in new construction has occurred during Shockley-Zalabak’s reign.

“If we didn’t expand in housing, academic buildings and recreation centers, we wouldn’t have been able to accommodate the students who wanted to come here and we couldn’t provide the academic programs the region needs,” she said.

She’s also been leading a staff of 3,230, of which 1,780 are student employees.

Even now, in her early 70s, Shockley-Zalabak has superwoman-style energy.

She’s often the first person in the office in the morning and the last to leave at night, said UCCS spokesman Tom Hutton, one of her right-hand associates.

Shockley-Zalabak says she doesn’t know where her verve comes from; she’s always had a lot of get-up-and-go.

“I probably should be studied for my energy gene,” she jokes.

But, “I get way too much credit,” she says. “If anybody thinks you can do it all yourself, you’ve lost your mind.”

Shockley-Zalabak took over as chancellor on the cusp of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and the university experienced lean, turbulent years in 2002 and again in 2008, when the recession forced severe state budget cuts.

“We had to rethink our financial model entirely,” she said. “We had to be very strategic in planning that which we could control. It was tough.”

Pellow said Shockley-Zalabak seemed fearless in the face of adversity.

“She’s overseen an amazing period of time here without ever being flustered or missing a beat,” he said. “She’s perhaps been the best chancellor we’ve had, partly because it’s been potentially one of the more difficult times with so many changes. She’s held everything together marvelously.”

She’s also continued to teach communication classes during every semester, even her 15 years at the helm. She specializes in organizational communication and has written numerous books.

“I like to teach,” she says. “It’s easy to get isolated in one of these jobs from the reality of why you’re here. When you’re in the classroom, you’re in the ‘why’ we do what we do.”

She describes herself as hard-working, big on perseverance and a collaborator.

“I care deeply about what I’m doing.”

A former college basketball player at Oklahoma State University, Shockley-Zalabak has been one of the biggest fans of UCCS teams. She admittedly paces a lot during games, but wouldn’t miss them. She also attends student music and theater performances, student banquets and other events.

“The compassion she has for the student body and faculty and staff is truly impressive,” Hybl said, “because you can find Pam on campus at sport events and teaching classes – I think there might be three or four Pams.”

But there’s only one, and she’s retiring now because she wants the time to settle matters with her family’s wheat farm in Oklahoma, do private consulting and write books on organizational redesign and the trust model.

Said Pellow: “I know almost nobody who speaks badly of Pam Shockley-Zalabak. Since she knows thousands of people, that’s fairly remarkable.”

Venkat Reddy, dean of the UCCS College of Business, is interim chancellor. A search firm is reviewing the first batch of applicants, said Hybl, a member of the search committee.

“I think that while it’s an aggressive timeline to try to have someone by the end of the academic year, it looks like it is a process that is viable to achieve,” Hybl said.