Stepping into the Chadron State College president’s office April 18 was like walking into a church for a funeral. The several flower bouquets arranged around Janie Park’s office, combined with the collection of plants already assembled, turned the space into a veritable greenhouse. There were no mourners. The mood was anything but somber. The flowers, sent by admirers of Park’s seven-year tenure at the college, were sentiments of appreciation and not sadness.
Park announced her retirement at a faculty appreciation luncheon April 10. She later admitted she had been collaborating for almost a year to prepare for her retirement, and that she had decided “early on” in her career to retire at age 65. She said she delayed her retirement by a year and plans to return to her home in Red Lodge, Mont., in mid-May.
Park’s presidency has had its share of highs and lows, but through it all, she has tried to live by three words – “courage, integrity, and character.”
Those who have worked with her attest to her personal character.
“She’s been a great leader for the institution,” said Pam Anderson, Park’s secretary, who has been with the her since 2005.
Anderson also highlighted Park’s professional demeanor and her ability to think quickly under pressure as two of the qualities she admires most in the president.
After I was ushered into the president’s office, Park, wearing a blue suit with a white blouse, rose from her desk, crossed the room, and shook hands.
“Sorry it’s like a funeral in here,” Park said as she guided us to seats around a nearby glass-top table.
For the next 30 minutes she spoke graciously and candidly about her tenure as CSC’s 10th president.
Q: In running a college, you have to deal with students, alumni, parents, and trustees, among others. How do you balance all the different perspectives that each group has?
A: Students are always first. All decisions have to consider student’s interests first. There really isn’t a hierarchy or ranking after that.
Q: Anytime you’re in the public service, you are bound to be subjected to criticism. How do you deal with it?
A: About like everyone else, I’d imagine. I wish I didn’t have to go through it, but at the same time, I realize it is a part of the job. It’s never easy. You always work hard to do the best you can.
Q: Have you ever felt like you didn’t measure up during your presidency?
A: On a daily basis. Being a college president is always a challenge. Every day there are different and new challenges that require a unique way to approach it. I self-analyze at every step. You just have to try to consider everyone’s best interests.
Q: Has the presidency changed you?
A: All stages of my career have evolved. I’ve learned tremendously. I have gained an increased level of tolerance; the ability to make a decision quickly when one is needed. I have also learned that there are multiple sides to each issue. Thus, I try to do as much research as I can beforehand (if time allows) before I make a decision. There are generally few black and white issues in a college president’s work. The issues are generally a shade of gray.
Q: Do you have anxiety about transitioning from a high-stress job to a relatively relaxing and uneventful retirement?
A: No stress involved at all. I have a 40-year career behind me. I’m really looking forward to it.
Q: What will you miss?
A: The people. I work with faculty, students, alumni, the community. I’ve been able to take a lot of road trips where I met with alumni and heard their stories.
Q: How would you describe the stereotypical college president?
A: First, as a person willing to give up a personal life for a public one. Second, someone who enjoys socialization and meeting people. Third, someone who is a leader.
Q: What are you most confident about?
A: I have a team of people that work with me everyday – the vice presidents, the deans, the athletic director, the foundation director.
These people will continue to lead the campus in a positive way.
Q: You said you had been planning your retirement for a year, and extended your presidency a year longer than you had originally planned. There are some in the community who might believe they helped influence your decision. Is this true or is it just coincidental timing? Please elaborate on the effect (if any) the O’Boyle situation had on your decision to retire.
A: That is absolutely not true. The O’Boyle situation had no effect on my decision.”
Q: In lieu of the many major unfortunate events that have occurred during roughly each year of your presidency (Spotted Trail Fire, the death of Steven Haataja, the 2007 campus lockdown, the financial crisis in the system, the death of Kenneth Pfeiffer in ‘08, and the O’Boyle situation this past year), what was it like dealing with such major catastrophes year after year, and at any point did you feel plagued by the negative events?
A: There were unusual events. All the other institutions I’ve been at previously had their share of negative events, but the ones at Chadron State were highly unusual. Aside from being different than unfortunate events I have experienced at other institutions, those things are just part of life.
Q: If you could do anything over again during your presidency, what would it be and how would you do it differently?
A: I thought about it this morning, but I couldn’t think of anything. That doesn’t mean that I’ve done everything right, but nothing comes to mind at the present.
Q: During your inauguration speech, you emphasized the importance of the Chadron community to the success of the college. Now that some citizens have expressed discontent and anger over the handling of the NCAA investigation, even going so far as to start a petition requesting that the Nebraska legislature become involved and start an investigation of their own, are any steps being taken to repair this relationship?
A: I’m not aware of them. Can you give some specifics?”
The Eagle: As you might be aware, some businesses in the Chadron community have petitions calling for the legislature to investigate the NSCS and the college for its handling of the NCAA investigation.
Park: I wasn’t aware of that.
Q: Now that you are aware of this issue, is any action going to be taken regarding it?
A: I can’t imagine why it would.
Q: Also, as you may have known, a Facebook page was created to support O’Boyle and its members have posted that they have been in contact with state senators, the legislature, and others regarding the NCAA investigation’s handling.
A: No one has directly said anything to me about it. The majority of the community understood there were no other alternatives.
I had absolutely no other choice.
Q: Now when you say that a majority of the community understands and that the dissident population is only a fragment of the overall community, and you consider that O’Boyle’s Facebook support page has more than 600 members, how do you classify a majority and a fragment?
A: I believe it’s a small majority, and even though it [the page] has that many members, I believe only a small segment is active.
Q: What are you most proud of?
A: There are always two or three things I think of when asked about a legacy. First is capital construction – Vision 2011 was the first major capital construction fundraising campaign in 100 years. We not only met, but also exceeded our goals, considering the economic climate, this is even all the more impressive. It’s not just about money, though that is important. It raised the college’s visibility. It boosted our confidence that we could initiate and carry out a fundraising project like this. Second is the Rangeland Center funding – we plan to break ground in May. Third is the Armstrong funding. Fourth is the campus appearance. Everyone wants to be proud of their campus.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to say?
A: I never wanted to be a lame-duck president. I don’t want my decisions to confine others’ decisions and goals down the road. I wanted to get as much done as possible, which is why I waited so long to make the announcement. I was still hesitant announcing it as late as one month away. There’s no way to do everything I could have wanted. Chadron State is a great college. Great faculty and programs. Its alumni are so bonded to the institution. It’s a remarkable college.
I am going to miss it.