Ever since I was young, I have been fascinated by the acute stress responses animals and humans take on when they perceive danger. I wonder who will flee, freeze, or fight? As I’ve brought cats into my life, I’ve become even more interested in this issue. I’ve found my cats react differently depending on the stressor. Athena cat, who died six years ago, fought back no matter the stressor. Veterinarians hated to see her coming, and when the big tomcat next door picked a fight, she was all in despite the fact that he was twice as large as she was. The other three cats have responded quite differently. Maya cat freezes for the vet, but fights back against Homer cat, who has eight pounds on her and is ten years younger. Penny cat also freezes for the vet, but she flees and hides under the couch (often forgetting to pull her tail under) when Homer cat wants to fight her.
You might be getting the picture that Homer cat is a bully boy and you would be right. Although, to his credit, he often thinks he’s “playing.” Clearly he has no real reason to worry about being attacked at home, but unlike the other cats, he has been through a number of life-threatening health problems and has gone through two surgeries. Homer’s reaction to stressors at the vet’s office is actually closer to that of humans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): he fawns all over everyone. He even roles over and allows the technicians who have worked with him to rub his belly. You would never know that he hides, fusses, and cries his little heart out when he sees his carrier come up from downstairs and realizes he is headed to the vet’s office.
Last November I was one of many Southern Polytechnic State University (SPSU) employees who probably felt a bit of acute stress when we were told that the school was terminal and had only a year to live before being merged with Kennesaw State University (KSU). There is nothing like a merger to make employees have an acute stress reaction, especially if it seemed like things had been going well. In the fifteen years that I’ve taught at the school, SPSU had managed to emerge from what I sometimes worried was a permanent case of teenage angst to become a maturing, thriving, comprehensive polytechnic university.
Because the new university would be called Kennesaw State University and the president of the university would be the KSU president, it was clear from the beginning that many in upper administration would have to choose the “flee” response to the merger. No real choice was given. However, other administrators, faculty, and staff members have chosen to “flee”—some for unrelated reasons. Thus, SPSU has not only found itself dying, but in need of life support in order not to limp into the consolidation with KSU.
I’m not going to term the people who have taken on roles of helping SPSU employees to merge into KSU as “fighters,” since they don’t resemble my Athena cat in the least–claws bared and lashing out randomly–and clearly they are not freezing, with their heads buried under their couches. They also don’t seem to be “fawners” like Homer cat. They don’t seem to be taking care of only themselves and not worrying about others at the university. Thus, I am going to see these people as the type of people who do more than simply react to life’s stressors, but instead as the type of people who react in thoughtful, caring ways. These people have taken on leadership roles in order to help the Marietta campus come through the merger a bit scarred, but ready to heal and to continue to grow into the wonderful, vibrant community that SPSU was in the process of becoming. I am going to term what these people are doing as stepping up.
Stepping Up to Academic Leadership
It is always interesting to see who are the people who remain committed to an organization during times of trouble and who step up and help out. I don’t think anyone on the SPSU campus was surprised to see Ron Koger, our current Interim President, do so. Stepping up seems to be his modus operandi. We have seen him do this often during his time at SPSU. Likewise, I think many people were not surprised to see Richard Cole step up to take on the duties of the interim Vice President of Academic Affairs. Rich has taught students at the university since 1987 and had stepped into an interim position as the Dean of the School of Architecture before becoming the Dean last year.
However, I want to concentrate on the women at SPSU (specifically two women) who have stepped into interim leadership positions in order to support several academic programs at SPSU.
SPSU’s primary woman leader was President Lisa A. Rossbacher, who left the university due to the merger. There have otherwise been few women leaders serving on the academic side of the house at SPSU. Only three women ran departments last year: Becky Rutherfoord led the Information Technology (IT) Department, Julie Newell ran the Social and International Studies (SIS) Department, and Renee Butler ran the Systems and Mechanical Engineering Department (SME). Finally Nancy Colyar, SPSU’s current Director of the Library, replaced Joyce Mills, who retired last year. Lack of women leadership has changed this year.
Renee Butler has retained her position as SMED Chair, and Nancy Colyar has retained her position as Director of the Library, but others have moved into different positions of leadership, and still other women have joined the ranks as leaders. Here’s a quick list of new women academic leaders and their positions:
- Becky Rutherfoord has stepped up to the position of Interim Dean of the School of Computing and Software Engineering vacated by Han Reichgelt.
- Svetlana Peltsverger has stepped into the position of Interim Chair of Information Technology during Becky’s absence.
- Julie Newell has stepped into the position of Interim Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences vacated by Thomas Nelson (this position will cease to exist once the merger is completed).
- Laura Palmer has stepped into the position of Interim Chair of Digital Writing and Media Arts (formerly English, Technical Communication, and Media Arts) vacated by Mark Nunes, and
- Sarah Holliday has stepped into the position of Interim Chair of Mathematics vacated by Andrew McMorran, who stepped down and remains on the SPSU campus.
Two women in (interim) dean positions and five women in chair or director positions (three of which are interim) must be an all time high number for SPSU. I plan to focus on two women, Becky Rutherfoord and Svetlana Peltsverger, since their leadership places two of the three leadership positions (Jon Preston is the Chair of the Computer Science and Software Engineering Department) in the School of Computing and Software Engineering in the hands of women.
Becky Rutherfoord’s leadership has been a guiding force for many years at SPSU. At different points in her career at
SPSU (the Southern College of Technology when she began working here), Becky has acted as the Interim Chair of Computer Science, the Interim Dean of Arts and Sciences, the Chair of Information Technology (a program she helped to create when Michael Murphy chaired the CS program), and she currently is the SACS accreditation liaison as well as the Associate Vice President of Institutional Effectiveness.
Her path to becoming the Interim Dean of the School of Computing and Software Engineering has zigged and zagged since she studied Music Education and Guidance and Counseling at Indiana State University where she earned a B.S. in Music Education, an M.S. in Music Education and an Ed.D. in Guidance and Counseling. How did Becky get from music and counseling to computer science? This had to do with several moves as IBM transferred her husband Jim from Indiana to Louisiana to Georgia as well as with the difficulties in finding jobs teaching music or working as a guidance counsel at a high school.
In 1975 during Becky’s last year at ISU and soon after her son Jim, Jr. was born, her husband was transferred to New Orleans, Louisiana and Becky joined him there after completing her degree. They lived in Slidell, LA for a year before her husband was transferred from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. It was in Baton Rouge that Becky, discouraged with the availability of jobs in music and counseling, took a logic test for IBM that sent her down the computer science pathway. People didn’t have college degrees in Computer Science in the late 1970’s. Becky’s strengths, which showed up on the logic test, her interview skills, and some basic knowledge of Fortran with a bit of training in Cobol, landed her in an information technology job at Louisiana State University where she was a Systems Analyst Program trainee.
While at LSU Becky took on her first leadership position when she interviewed for and obtained a job as the director of a federally funded program at LSU for the physically handicapped. However, her husband was transferred to Marietta, Georgia, and Becky began anew to find a job. She decided to apply for a job as a computer science teacher after she saw an advertisement for the position at Devry University. She taught at Devry for two years, but wasn’t really happy with what she termed the “restrictive environment.” In 1983 she saw a tiny advertisement for a computer science teaching position at the Southern College of Technology (Southern Tech). When she was hired, she became the second person hired to teach computer science. In 1994, after Southern Tech had established both its B.S. and M.S. programs in computer science, Becky realized the benefit of earning a graduate degree in the field and earned her MS from Southern Tech in 1996. The rest is now history.
When I talked with Becky, I was interested in a couple of things. The first was what she believes she brings to the job of Interim Dean at a time of reorganization. Becky believes she was hired because of her ability to organize, because of her expertise, and because she knows the people both in the School of Computing and Software Engineering and on the campus as well. This is important to Becky because she believes faculty buy-in is essential as we move forward. Becky also notes that she multitasks well and is able to make hard, important decisions. However, Becky wants to ensure that faculty members understand that she sees curriculum development as their job.
The College of Computing and Software Engineering will be located on the SPSU campus with classes being taught on both campuses. Becky notes the College has its work cut out for itself as it tries to make curriculum decisions by October since it hosts over 50 people at three different programs. She hopes to gather both KSU faculty and SPSU faculty together for meetings as these difficult decisions are made.
I also asked Becky to discuss any women leadership initiatives in which she has participated. Becky sees the development of women leadership on campus as important because female students need to have role models. She was often the only woman on committees when she was first hired at SPSU, and she found that as a member of these committees, she was lucky to be an extrovert who was willing to speak up. Dr. Rossbacher did help Becky and others to develop their leadership skills. Becky, Julie Newell, Kit Trensch, and Phyllis Weatherly all participated in KSU’s Women Leadership Initiative. They then all came back to SPSU and provided opportunities on this campus for women to participate in leadership initiatives here.
Becky is glad to see that Ron Koger has sent women this year to take part in the KSU Women’s Leadership Initiative once again.
Balancing work and home is always hard, but Becky makes sure to do so. She and Jim have three children – two boys, and a girl, and four grandchildren – three boys and a girl, ranging in ages of 4 months to 14 years old. Each Sunday evening Becky and Jim have all of the extended family over for Sunday dinner. They often take the kids and grandkids on vacations as well. For some relaxation and fun, Becky and Jim go out on Lake Allatoona in their pontoon boat, and soon they will do so in the “old” sailboat they just purchased. Finally, it’s good to know that Becky has not let her music go—she is currently the fill-in organist at her small Anglican Church in Woodstock.
Sveltlana Peltsverger did not go willingly into the position of Interim Chair of Information Technology. She was already the Graduate Coordinator for the Masters of Science Degree in Information Technology. Despite her concerns with taking on this role, Sveltana did in the end find it important to step up into the position.
Svetlana has come a long way from her childhood in Russia and wanting to grow up to become a doctor. Her parents talked her out of this dream—they told her that she wouldn’t have a life because she would be so busy. Since Svetlana loves mathematics (just like her father does who was then teaching the subject at Chelyabinsk Polytechnic Institute), it was easy for her to decide to study it instead. She soon found herself at Chelyabinsk studying applied mathematics, which basically means she was studying computer science with a math minor. By the end of her fifth year at Chelyabinsk, Svetlana had earned both her B.S. and her M.S. She then traveled to Moscow to complete her Ph.D. at the Institute for Systems Analysis of the Russian Academy of Science.
Unfortunately in the early 1990’s when Svetlana began teaching at Chelyabinsk State Technical University (now South Ural State University), Russia’s economy had taken an economic downturn. One year she began teaching without a salary and wasn’t paid until December. Thus, she stepped up her game and took a second job. She worked two jobs for almost two years.
In 1996 her parents and her brother moved to the United States. Her father took a position at Georgia Southwestern State University (GSW) where he is currently the Dean of the School of Computing and Mathematics. Svetlana followed her parents and brother to the states in 1998. She taught at GSW and worked in the information technology support department for six years. Svetlana then served as a visiting professor at the University of North Carolina (UNC) in Ashville, NC. The UNCA campus was quite different from the polytechnic campuses she had known. UNCA is a liberal arts campus and Svetlana taught programming to students with purple hair and black nails who were learning music technology or video and weather forecasting. The students were smart, but she missed the polytechnic vibe.
Thus, Svetlana was more than happy to return to a polytechnic campus when she was hired at SPSU. She currently likes the way Information Technology as a degree connects to the business world. She also likes teaching both day and night classes because of the contrasting student populations. The students taking classes during the day are often younger and come to class in jeans and t-shirts, and the evening students are more likely to be older and often come to class from a job dressed in business casual.
This is not the first time Svetlana has worked in administration since she once worked as a regional sales manager for Pepsi International LTD in Chelyabinsk, Russia. Thus, she carefully weighed the commitment she was taking on, knowing that it meant being responsible for the department and its faculty and staff, that it meant working five days a week and over the summer, and that it meant ensuring the current culture and curriculum are carried on as SPSU merges with KSU.
One thing Svetlana hopes she can do as the Interim Chair of Information Technology is to help faculty, staff, and students to find the upside of this merger. Currently she is examining the ways in which the additional research interests of KSU faculty will enrich the program. She likes that KSU offers students more activities as well as more leadership possibilities that may propel them to interact outside of the major field more.
Like Becky she will ensure that she balances work and life as well as she possibly can do so. Svetlana is married and has a daughter, a Ridgeback dog, and a cat with a manx Scottish Fold mix. She escapes by reading, traveling, and hiking. Currently she loves to vacation in areas with no data and voice coverage.
With women like Becky, Svetlana, Julie, Laura, Sarah, Renee, and Nancy playing important leadership roles and with the continuing efforts of the university’s many male leaders, SPSU has an excellent opportunity to bring exceptional programs to the new KSU.
In William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, Juliet asks, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet…” Maybe what makes SPSU, “SPSU” is not the name, but is instead the rich culture, the excellent curriculum, and the caring faculty, staff, and administration who support the students. We may no longer be called SPSU, but we can continue to keep the type of small campus culture that has nourished students, AND we can embrace what KSU can offer to be even better at serving the needs of the students. In the end, it wasn’t a death knell we were hearing in November. Rather it was more of a rebirth so that we, like the phoenix, can rise from our ashes to continue to shine, and I can go back to observing stress responses in my cats.