Jan 20, 2011

<b>TSU's interim president,   Portia Holmes Shields, has experience leading troubled schools into efficiency and out of red ink. </b> Dipti Vaidya /  The Tennessean
 
 
 
 
If university administrators came with theme songs, Portia Holmes Shields' would be "A Change Is Gonna Come."

That's the soundtrack she has chosen for herself as she introduces herself to Tennessee State University faculty, staff and students as their interim president.

"Not everyone is going to love me," Shields said Friday, looking completely unfazed by that prospect. "But people have to believe in you in order for things to go in a different direction, and, miraculously, I've found that people are willing to give me a chance."

There will be layoffs, reorganizations, and changes in the curriculum and in the way the university does business under the new administration. All, she said, will happen with one goal in mind: making the university a better place for its students.

"My time here is short," said Shields, whose term will end in a year or two. "Change is going to come to this institution. Now, if it doesn't come under me, it's still coming. So why don't we get together and solve these few little problems we have?"

TSU is in trouble with its accrediting body and plagued by sluggish enrollment, a top-heavy bureaucracy, compared with other state institutions, and complaints of poor student service.

Those areas will be the first to feel the change, starting with likely layoffs among top ranks of the university administration.

"First thing we're going to do is 'right-size' the institution. I think that we have had some administrative positions that were top-heavy, starting here in the president's office," Shields said. "If we're not doing our jobs, then we need to step off … because I can't leave everybody here if the job is not done."

Then there are the teams of observers she plans to send into the admissions and financial aid offices, to shadow the staff and find out why so many students routinely complain about paperwork going missing.

"Because I don't believe that people intentionally set out to hurt students. So what is it? We don't have enough telephones? We don't have enough cash registers? We don't have enough people?" she said.

Overshadowing everything is the fact that Tennessee State is on warning with its accrediting body, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. The school has one year to bring its standards up in four key areas or risk further sanctions. Shields is organizing teams of faculty and administrators who will be working closely with officials from the accrediting body to make sure that doesn't happen.

Familiar territory

She was raised in Washington, D.C., by hard-working parents who put a premium on higher education. Shields, her mother and two sisters all graduated from various college programs in the same year, traveling from state to state to cheer one another on. Her sister Eleanor Holmes Norton represents district in Congress.

The top seat at TSUis familiar territory for Shields, who has led three universities in her career, all of them in some sort of crisis at the start of her tenure. Albany State University in Georgia was reeling from a catastrophic flood that gutted the campus. Concordia College in Selma, Ala., was on probation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and in a deep financial hole.

She left both schools better than she found them. She organized a successful capital campaign at Albany that rebuilt the campus and boosted enrollment. Concordia went from a multimillion-dollar budget deficit to a modest budget surplus, and from two dozen accreditation violations to just a handful in the space of her year-and-a-half tenure as interim leader.

 

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