This story first appeared in the Shippensburg University Magazine.
Charles E. Patterson describes himself as a servant leader. It’s a leadership style he says means “never saying no” to serving and willingly supporting the needs of those he leads. So when he was asked to consider the interim presidency at Shippensburg University he said “yes” to a new opportunity to serve and lead.
His own educational journey is where he discovered his desire to serve.
After earning a Bachelor of Science in biochemistry from Mississippi State University, Patterson pursued his PhD in biomedical sciences from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
As a graduate student at UT Southwestern, he got his first real taste of higher education administration on the selection committee for new graduate students and the campus housing committee. While he still had a passion for science, he quickly realized his career path was not that of a PhD level researcher.
“Administration allowed me to invest in the success of others. It was through this work that I really kind of found my calling,” he said.
That calling led him to a position at Baylor University, where he officially launched his career in higher education as the assistant director of sponsored programs. From Baylor he headed to Georgia Southern University as a vice president for research and economic development and chair of the university’s Research and Service Foundation, Inc. In 2015, he was named interim president of Georgia Southwestern State University.
Two years later he was selected as the senior advisor for outreach at the US Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid.
The next stop on his journey in service landed him not far from Shippensburg University. Just 170 miles north of Ship, Patterson was named president of the State System’s Mansfield University. Under his leadership, Mansfield ended a nine-year decline by achieving consecutive enrollment increases while also increasing first-year retention from 73 percent to 78.1 percent, even during the pandemic. Patterson established campus-shared governance and effective organizational models that brought together various constituencies to work toward university strategies and achievement.
Inspired by his extensive experience and ability to get results, Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education, in collaboration with the Shippensburg University Council of Trustees, announced the selection of Patterson as interim president of Shippensburg University.
In July, Patterson arrived at Ship with his wife Colleen and their son, Aidan. From day one he offered a new level of accessibility that is a key component of his servant leadership style. With active profiles on Twitter and Instagram, he shares his life with followers, champions the work of faculty, students and alumni, and playfully banters with his followers and first lady Colleen.
When he ventured into the world of social media as a president, he wanted to make sure his followers knew it was him managing the accounts, not his staff.
“What you see is what you get,” he explained.
Through social media Patterson says he gains a crucial level of connectivity. A connectivity he expands upon by giving out his cell phone number to students. He did it once on a whim and now it’s a signature practice.
“I wanted them to know they could reach out to me if they had the simplest questions or were having the hardest time,” he added.
He finds most students are respectful and just text to say hello and check in.
The sharing of his number during a recent open house netted 73 text messages from future Raiders. He answered all 73.
“It takes all of 30 minutes,” and he feels it can make a big difference in the student experience.
His drive to connect with those he serves extends far beyond students as Patterson is working hard to engage with faculty and staff. For him, this means providing opportunities to collaborate and listen.
President’s Cabinet meetings are now available through live streaming for the entire Ship community to watch. It’s his hope everyone will take part in the meetings. He views everyone as a stakeholder in Ship’s success and is working diligently to empower all members of the campus community to bring their ideas to the table.
“If I can make faculty, staff, and students successful through my leadership—making sure they have the resources they need—that’s where I want to serve,” said Patterson.
The relationships he forges with those who support the university are a priority as well. He is quick to highlight the important work of the Shippensburg University Foundation, alumni, and others who generously give of their talents and gifts.
He says it is important they “have trust and faith that the funds that they give in support of the university are used in a way to further enhance the reputation and strengthen the institution.”
As he works with all Ship stakeholders his goals for Ship are clear.
“I hope to ensure that Ship really becomes the flagship it deserves to be, of this region and the System. We’ve got great faculty and great students. We’re in one of the few regions in the state with continued growth. There is potential to differentiate here,” he said.
With his optimism and hope comes the reality that Ship and higher education across the nation face great challenges in terms of financial sustainability. Pennsylvania currently ranks 48th in the nation for state investment in higher education. Serving Ship by advocating for increased funding is a vital part of his work as is finding new ways to fund Ship’s mission.
“As an enrollment driven institution, because of the state funding model, and with enrollment decline, we are trying to deploy strategies that keep higher education affordable while maintaining costs. It’s a real challenge,” he said.
But he says he is up for the challenge and inspired to serve by the great potential he sees at Ship.
A family affair
As Patterson brings a fresh perspective to Ship, he himself has gained a new perspective on higher education. He is now the father of a college student. His son, Aidan, is a first-year student at the university, living in Kieffer Hall.
“It’s a different side of higher ed you don’t see unless you’re a parent,” he said.
He attended orientation with Aidan in June and did his best to fly under the radar.
“I spoke to Admissions to tell them I was coming, but I just wanted to come and be dad. This was the only time I was going to experience this and I wanted to be there for him,” he explained.
Together, Patterson, Aidan, and Colleen experienced the standard first time in college moments, from orientation, to move in, and buying books. All events that look quite different through the lens of a parent of a student.
And while Aidan doesn’t have far to walk to come home on the weekends, mom and dad are giving him space to find his own path at Ship. So much space, that it took 67 days for Colleen to run into Aidan walking across campus. A bittersweet moment she shared on Twitter.
But Colleen is busy at Ship as well, serving the campus community just like Patterson. You can frequently find her at athletic events, chatting with students, volunteering with campus service projects, or even stepping in to help when Patterson’s schedule becomes a bit hectic. In November she took the stage at the Luhrs Center to welcome future Raiders and their families during an open house.
Patterson is thankful for their collaborative dynamic, but jokes that they tend to create more work for each other.
“In reality, she pushes me to do more and do better. And I push her. It’s a complementary relationship, but not one that minimizes work,” Patterson said laughing.
While there is a lot of work to be done, both find fun where they can with their new community. You can find Patterson playing with the family dogs, Oliver and Sweetie, in the front yard of the Martin House or you might catch the couple cruising around on Patterson’s Ducati motorcycle.
“There’s a high level of engagement at Ship that I’m excited about. The level of engagement we have fosters a sense of belonging,” he said.
Called to serve Ship, and inspired to lead, it’s clear Patterson is where he belongs.