She’s No. 1

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Being first has become a habit for Goldey-Beacom’s president

 

Perhaps it was inevitable that Dr. Colleen Perry Keith ended up in The First State, since she seems to specialize in being first.

She scored multiple firsts in 2010, when she became the first woman, the first non-clergy and the first Catholic to be named president of Spartanburg Methodist College in Spartanburg, S.C.

Then, in 2015, she became the first female president of Pfeiffer University in Misenheimer, N.C.

And now, in 2020, she is the first female president of Goldey-Beacom College in Delaware.

Keith, 57, was inaugurated as president last July 1, succeeding Dr. Gary Wirt, who retired after 45 years at the school on Limestone Road in Pike Creek. She is now well into her second semester on the job.

“It’s been a very smooth adjustment. Fortunately, this was the third time I’ve sat in this chair, so that helps when you’re adjusting to a new place,” Keith says of her third job as president in the last decade. “As far as the school is concerned, we have a lot of people here at Goldey-Beacom that have long tenures and that has helped me a lot, with the historical knowledge they have.”

Those previous presidencies were a major factor in the decision to hire her. After Wirt announced his decision to retire, the school’s board of trustees conducted an extensive national search, led by the Chicago-based firm of Witt/Kieffer. They received almost 200 applications, but Mark Olazagasti, the chairman of the board, says Keith stood above the crowd in many areas, including the fact that she had experience with new experiences.

“Goldey-Beacom had not gone outside of the institution [for a new president] as long as anybody could remember, so we thought it was extremely important to go outside the walls of Goldey-Beacom and expand our vision,” Olazagasti says. “Our desire was to have somebody who was external and somebody who had been through a transition like this before, somebody who had experience dealing with new situations and could handle that, as well as all of the other duties a college president has to deal with on a daily basis.”

“But that was just one part of it,” Olazagasti adds. “Throughout the process, she really stood out. When we first looked at the resumes, she was No. 1. Then, through the interviews, through the first cut, she was No. 1 again.”

“In the end, it was pretty unanimous.”

On The Road To Delaware

Keith is a native of Parish, N.Y., a town of a little more than 500 people–about the size of Dagsboro–located 20 miles north of Syracuse. So, if nothing else, she won’t be intimidated when the first big snowfall of the year hits Pike Creek.

Keith earned an undergraduate degree in political science from SUNY-Binghamton, then a master’s degree in education counseling from the University of Pittsburgh, and a Doctor of Philosophy in higher education administration and student affairs from Ohio State University.

She worked in college administration and enjoyed it, and says she had no desire to be the president of any college, much less three of them. Then a friend of hers, who was involved with Spartanburg Methodist, told her the school had an opening for president and urged her to apply. So, after investigating the school and discussing it with her husband, she did apply, but more as a lark than anything else.

“I was perfectly happy being a college administrator,” she says. “I loved raising money and working with students, and I never really wanted to be at the top. But I thought it might be a good opportunity and it was something totally different, and I liked the challenge of that. But I didn’t think for a second that I would get the job.”

But she did, and once she did, Keith discovered there was an unexpected reward from her new and much more influential position.

“I came to understand that this job helps people,” she says. “It helps make dreams come true.”

The move to Wilmington puts Keith closer to her parents in New York & her son in Washington, D.C. Photo by Justin Heyes

As for her pioneering status at Spartanburg Methodist and beyond, Keith says she appreciated the significance of it, but didn’t dwell on it; at the time, she was moving to a new home in a new state and was more concerned with geography than history.

“I just viewed it like I would any position I accepted, and that’s to give it 150 percent and leave the place better than when I found it,” she says. “I know other people have discussed [her being the first female president], just like they did at Pfeiffer and now here at Goldey-Beacom, but it really hasn’t had the impact on me that I know it probably should.”

But as she got ready for her first year at Spartanburg Methodist, something happened that had a life-changing impact on Keith–she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had surgery and went through chemotherapy sessions, and then, just before her inauguration as president, her hair fell out.

But she soldiered on. She got a wig, pinned her tam to it and proceeded with the ceremony, a smile on her face the entire time.

“Luckily, I had already gotten some wigs and I just trimmed them up to look good,” she says with a laugh. “And once I pinned [the tam] on, it stayed on better than it ever has.”

It’s been nine years since then and Keith is now cancer-free, and, in her words, “a huge advocate” for yearly breast exams, which she says saved her life.

Personal Vs. Professional

After four years at Spartanburg Methodist, Keith applied for and was awarded the job of president of Pfeiffer, another school affiliated with the Methodist Church. That made the transition to her new position an easy one.

“They knew me and I knew them,” she says.

Keith was happy at Pfeiffer and they were happy with her, but as she got older her perspective on life started to change, and certainly her bout with cancer influenced the way she and her husband, Barry Keith, looked at things. Family became more and more important and she wanted to be closer to their son, who lives with his girlfriend in Washington, D.C. (she’s still hoping for a wedding and grandkids, she says). Plus, her parents have stayed in upstate New York, and that is a long, long drive from North Carolina.

So, she started thinking about another career change when the position at Goldey-Beacom became open. Keith was familiar with the University of Delaware and Wilmington University, but she knew nothing of Goldey-Beacom. Like millions of other people, her only experience with Delaware had been driving through it on her way to someplace else.

Once again she did her research, investigating the area and the institution, which has been in existence since 1886–it was originally called Wilmington Commercial College and was located in downtown Wilmington, with an initial enrollment of five.

“When the job at Goldey-Beacom opened, it was such a good time for me personally, with my son and parents being so much closer than they had been,” Keith says. “At that point in time, we wanted to be more involved in their lives, especially since mom and dad are in their late 80s. We can just hop on a train to see our son, and my parents are now a four to five hour drive away, which is a lot better than 15. We’ve seen more of my parents in the last six months than we had the last couple of years.

“So, it was a good fit on the personal front. And then, professionally, I started investigating Goldey-Beacom and I discovered that it’s really a wonderful little place and very stable. It was a wonderful opportunity to join an institution with so much history and so much to offer going forward. The more I looked into it, the better it seemed, and, in the end, it was an easy decision, even though it was hard leaving [Pfeiffer], where I had made so many friends and where we had accomplished so much.”

Says Olazagasti, “Honestly, in the end, it wasn’t a tough sell for either side. I think we both knew early on that this was a good fit for everybody.”

So, she agreed to become the 14th president in Goldey-Beacom history and the Keith family–Colleen, Barry and their two English Bulldogs, Daisy and Bailey–packed up and moved into their new home on the Goldey-Beacom campus, ready for a new adventure.

Looking to the Future

Keith came to Delaware with plenty of ideas on how to enhance life at Goldey-Beacom, but before she could focus on increasing enrollment and improving facilities, her first priorities were a little more basic, such as finding a place to buy milk and bread. So, like any other person taking on a new job in a new state, she had to learn her way around and, once again, her experience at different jobs was an asset.

“Because this is the third time that I’ve done this, I’ve learned a few things about moving to a new place,” she says. “Finding doctors and dentists is the biggest thing, and things like finding somebody to do your hair. Because of my experience, I tried to set that up before I even got here and that helped a lot, since it allowed me to focus more on the job and the school. But you do have to take care of those everyday things that we usually take for granted.”

As for her agenda for Goldey-Beacom, Keith says her biggest priority is preparing students for life in the 21st century.

Keith says the school’s mission is to enable students to be successful in today’s job market as well as the job market of the future. Photo by Justin Heyes

“Our mission is really to provide an education that enables students to get and keep and be successful in today’s job market and the job market of the future,” she says. “If you’re looking for career advancement and how you’re going to move ahead, those are the kinds of things Goldey-Beacom does very well.”

Keith cites what she considers an important statistic–90 percent of Goldey-Beacom students have a full-time job or are attending graduate school within three months of graduating. Now, she says, the key is to get the word out on the street that Goldey-Beacom is affordable (about $12,000 a year when automatic grants are awarded, which Keith admits is a successful marketing ploy), and also has much to offer in the way of social life and athletics. According to U.S. News and World Report, the median starting salary for a Goldey-Beacom graduate is $52,200.

A Nimble Curriculum

“We have to do a better job marketing ourselves and letting people know who we are and what we can offer them,” Keith says. “We have to make people realize that we can prepare them for the future, because there are jobs out there now that didn’t even exist five years ago, and five years from now there will be even more changes. We need to look at our curriculum so we can stay nimble.

“So, we want to address the needs of the present and, at the same time, look ahead to the future.”

It was that approach that got the attention of the board of trustees when they were interviewing candidates for the president’s position.

“She obviously had done her homework and was well prepared and she had a plan,” Olazagasti says. “It was important to us that she realized that Goldey-Beacom has a strong foundation and a great history, and we didn’t want somebody who would come in here and rip everything apart and start from scratch.”

Olazagasti’s roots at Goldey-Beacom run deep. He’s a member of the class of 1985 and left the school with a degree in business management, which he used as a springboard to his current career as managing partner of Info Solutions LLC, an IT infrastructure company located on Justison Street near the Wilmington Riverfront. Plus, his father, Milton Olazagasti, who died in 2010, was a long-time soccer coach at Goldey-Beacom and was inducted into the school’s hall of fame in 2018.

“I know first-hand what a great institution Goldey-Beacom is right now, and how bright the future is,” Olazagasti says. “That’s something Dr. Keith realized right away. She saw that we’re on solid ground financially, and that’s something not all institutions can say. And she saw the potential for growth that we have at Goldey-Beacom.”

“It was pretty clear to all of us that Goldey-Beacom is on the verge of doing great things,” Olazagasti adds, “and we’re confident that Dr. Keith is the person to lead us where we want to go.”

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