Heidi Macpherson is the first female president to lead SUNY College at Brockport, a position she began July 16 following the retirement of John Halstead.
In her short time on campus, Macpherson, 47, has become known as a woman of the people, as she was described recently in an editorial in the college newspaper, The Stylus.
Students and faculty praise her accessibility both in person through a series of open forums called “new vision cafes” as well as through social media. She tweets daily through her personal Twitter account.
The campus community has come to know her by name and by face, often seeing her and her husband, Allan, walking Tilly, their springer spaniel, around campus grounds. The couple lives in a first-year residential hall while waiting for the presidential home on campus to be renovated.
As grounded as they see her, they know she has high expectations for her presidency and the college. She has more than two decades of experience in higher education, the majority of it in leadership positions in the United Kingdom.
As the president of SUNY Brockport, Macpherson oversees an institution with some 8,200 students, the fourth-largest local college in terms of enrollment. There are 1,436 employees, including 354 full-time and 300 part-time faculty, and the annual operating budget she manages is $66 million.
Macpherson found her way to the U.K. through a study abroad program while pursuing her bachelor of arts degree in English and creative writing at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. While in the U.K. in 1987, she met her future husband, who was an officer in the Royal Air Force.
After her college graduation, the couple married and settled in England, where Macpherson took her first of several posts beginning in 1995 at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston. While there, she held the positions of program leader, head of the division of English and head of the department of humanities.
She was promoted to full professor in 2006 and a year later she was appointed dean of humanities at De Montfort University in Leicester where she went on to hold two different pro-vice-chancellor positions.
She made her way back to the U.S. five years later. She wanted to help in the care of her aging parents and to be more present in the lives of her sister’s children. Macpherson accepted the post of provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse—a position, she says, is equal to the pro-vice-chancellor post she held in England.
Coming to Brockport
The move to SUNY Brockport was a promotion, and a position she did not seek. Macpherson admits her first love was teaching and her goal was to become a full professor.
“I didn’t start my career planning to become a college president. But I had mentors who saw skills in me and who encouraged me to take up opportunities as they presented themselves,” says Macpherson, noting it was a search firm that approached her in Wisconsin about the president’s position at SUNY Brockport.
“Working as a dean, or a provost, or now, as a president, offers me the opportunity to assist others in their academic goals, and that’s important to me. As an administrator, I’ve been able to help shape a colleague’s nascent idea and give it a structure that makes it successful. As a professor, I might have benefited from such programs, but as an administrator, I’ve been able to make it happen.”
Macpherson has several goals as president. One of her top priorities is to increase the international student population.
“We are right on the edge of Rochester, which is a major metropolitan area,” Macpherson says. “It fits into our history. We have a rich history of international engagement with past programs in Australia and Mexico.”
The study abroad program at SUNY Brockport assists its own students as well as students from the SUNY system across the state, Macpherson points out, as well as other colleges across the country. The Antarctica program, for example, attracts students from schools such as Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, she says.
Of the 8,200 students on campus, 140 come from abroad, says Ralph Trecartin, assistant provost for international education. Macpherson has set a goal to increase the number of international students to 500. That would match the number of students the college sends abroad each year.
“It’s exciting. Most U.S. universities are becoming more active in going out and attracting international students. It’s very evident international education is at the core of who Heidi is,” Trecartin says. “She brings a lot of expertise in this area to us and she has contacts all over the world.”
The international students at SUNY Brockport come from four main countries: South Korea, Canada, China and Japan, Trecartin says. Other countries represented include Norway, Germany, France, Vietnam and Thailand.
The most popular disciplines drawing international students, Trecartin says, are business and dance. He is looking forward to building ties with additional foreign partners and happy that Macpherson is taking up part of that charge herself.
“She called me long before her first day on the job to ask about a trip she was considering to China. She is going there this month to visit a couple universities and build academic relationships,” Trecartin says.
Seeking input is a strong suit of Macpherson, says Kimberly Piatt, assistant director of community development at the college.
“I see her so much around campus, actively talking and engaging people. There is very much a service emphasis. It is a Gandhi-style leadership,” Piatt says.
Students enjoy the opportunity to express their concerns during the open forum format Macpherson created, Piatt says. The new vision cafes are two-hour question-and-answer sessions that have been open to the campus community.
“I was facilitator for three of the six sessions and they were packed. We are crafting our identity as a college. Who is Brockport, especially with new leadership? People like that she is open and transparent,” Piatt says.
Students relate to Macpherson’s ability to communicate in many modes.
“She is all over social media. She responds personally if students tweet. Her Twitter description says it is her Twitter account,” Piatt says, noting Macpherson does not use assistants to manage her tweets. Her messages are all her own. “It has never been timelier to point that out.”
Macpherson is so open with access, Piatt says, that she is taking part in the student leadership program. Macpherson is matched with a student as a mentor. It is a freshman interested in women’s issues and international studies.
“This is our first time in the seven-year program that it has had a president involved at this level, one-on-one,” Piatt says. “It’s such an honor to get that one-on-one access, and it’s such a support for our program.”
Macpherson’s husband joined in as well. He is matched with a student majoring in business.
Macpherson also creates formalized opportunities for students to offer input. They have a seat on the Presidential Task Force for Budget and Planning, a committee Macpherson created in September to review ways to increase college revenue and decrease expenditures.
“She believes in shared governance and that includes student input,” says Arielle Ingrassia, a junior and finance major who sits on the committee. “As the chair of the committee she does a great job of facilitating, but she is focused on getting others’ ideas first. And she always asks me what I think from a student’s perspective.”
Being part of such a high-level fiscal project is a special opportunity for Ingrassia as a student of finance.
“This is a great professional development experience for me,” Ingrassia says. “I know from talking with my friends at other colleges that this kind of opportunity doesn’t always happen. It says a lot about Dr. Macpherson that she actively seeks student input and involvement, especially in financial matters.”
Macpherson oversees an operating budget of $66 million, which includes state tax support and tuition dollars, and an “all funds” annual budget of $128.9 million, which includes monies brought in through room and board, certain fees, fundraising, research grants and other items.
Some 81 percent of the revenue is collected from students and the remainder from state tax dollars and other sources, she explains.
“There are a lot of great ideas on campus, and I wish we could fund them all,” Macpherson says. “We have just launched our strategic planning process, and that will help us to determine areas for further investment.”
Macpherson grew up in the small town of Granite Falls, Minn., with two sisters. Her mother, Judy Clayton, was also an educator and has retired as adult basic education coordinator for southwest Minnesota.
Her father, Robert Slettedahl, had many roles, from insurance salesman to carpenter. He retired from the post office, having been a rural mail carrier for the last part of his working life.
The Macphersons have been married for 24 years. He is from Scotland, and they lived in the U.K. for 22 years. He retired from the military in 1999 and started a second career as an academic. He supervises final dissertation projects for students seeking doctorates of business administration at the University of Liverpool, England. He is able to work remotely from Brockport.
Macpherson is getting accustomed to life on campus and learning the area. She and Allan enjoy taking walks, going to see European films and trying new restaurants.
“We keep a running list of suggestions people make,” Macpherson laughs, noting the list is getting so long she wonders if they will have time to try them all. Her latest try was Lento at Village Gate in Rochester.
As Macpherson moves forward in her new position as president, many say she is already off to a strong start.
“I look forward to opportunities to make a difference on campus and beyond.”
Position: President, SUNY College at Brockport
Education: B.A. in English, St. Cloud State University, Minnesota, 1990; Ph.D. in literature, University of Newcastle, England, 1996
Family: Husband, Allan Macpherson
Residence: Campus of SUNY Brockport
Interests: Taking walks, going to see European films and trying new restaurants
Quote: “If I were not president, I’d want to go back to teaching full time. Higher education is definitely my calling.”
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