DENNIS SHIELDS, JD, ’77 always wanted to be a college president at a historically black college or university (HBCU). When the opportunity came to him at Southern, it was the right time for it.
Shields, who has been a Graceland trustee for 10 years, served as the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Platteville since 2010 and has spent most of his career advocating for better access to higher education — especially those who have been historically underrepresented. Southern University, located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is the largest historically black college or university (HBCU) in the state and is the flagship school of the Southern University System, which also includes two other universities, A&M College, and a law school. The school has an enrollment of over 7,000 students. Shields’ childhood friend, Don Hall, told him that the position at Southern University was “what you’ve been preparing for your whole life.”
When Shields was growing up in Iowa, he encountered Lois ’51 and Jack ’49 Braby, who immediately took an interest in him, inviting him to their home and taking him to summer camps. As he began to look at colleges in high school, Shields could have gone to a bigger school but chose to stay in Iowa and attend Graceland, where he thrived. His experiences as a basketball player as well as the president of the Black Student Union informed his leadership style throughout his career. “Graceland gave me the insight and self-awareness I needed to get my first job in higher education,” Shields recalled.
Shields held administrative positions in admissions at the University of Iowa College of Law, University of Michigan Law School, and Duke University School of Law. He has also held a deanship and a teaching position at Phoenix School of Law and acted as the vice president for student affairs at The City College of New York.
As a university president,Shields views his service on the Graceland board of trustees as professional development and an enriching experience. “There are extraordinarily successful people who have come through Graceland and I have been so fortunate to work with other trustees during this important time for Graceland,” he said.
“Graceland is full of aspirers – people who want to do something, who want to improve the world. My Graceland Experience had good and bad moments,” Shields continued. “Those opportunities helped me learn important leadership lessons through immersion and that gave me the ability to insert myself into circumstances that I might not have otherwise.”
Shields acknowledged that many people helped him along his journey, which made him a different kind of leader. “Of the finalists for the presidency at Southern, I was the outlier. I wasn’t from the South and I haven’t spent my career at an HBCU, but I’ve had so many Southern alumni reach out to me in support,” Shields said.
“It was the right time for Southern, too. My passion has always been student outcomes and I think that is what resonated with their board,” Shields said. “I think it is important for institutions to deliver on their educational mission for students. If they can do that, the institution will be successful.”
As he prepared for his new position at Southern, Shields reflected on his time at Graceland, both as a student and as a board member, saying, “I am so honored to step into this new role. The point is: it’s not about me, it’s about the difference you can make in your little place in the universe. That was planted in me at Graceland.”