Graceland Board of Trustees Member Dennis Shields ’77, JD (University of Iowa, 1982), was recently announced as the next president-chancellor of Southern University and A&M College. Shields has served as the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Platteville since 2010 and a Graceland trustee for 10 years.
“I am so blessed to work alongside Dennis as part of my work with the board of trustees. His insights into higher education and the advancement of academic initiatives on Graceland’s campuses have been critical, and we are so fortunate to have him both as an alumnus and as a trustee.” – Graceland President Patricia H. Draves
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, he could have gone to a bigger school, but chose to stay in Iowa and attend Graceland, where he knew that the Brabys had connections. “My experience would have been a lot different had I gone to a bigger institution,” Shields said. “Would I have been a student leader and been afforded the opportunities Graceland gave me?”
At Graceland, Shields thrived. He was a basketball player and said that he learned a lot about teamwork from his time as an athlete. “I learned the importance of knowing your role and having a group of people committed to the same goal,” he said.
His experiences as a basketball player as well as the president of the Black Student Union at Graceland have informed his leadership style throughout his career as a higher education leader. Prior to his current position in Wisconsin, 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.
Shields’ childhood friend Don Hall told him that the position at Southern University was “what you’ve been preparing for your whole life.” Shields had considered retirement but had 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. “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.”
Shields will serve as the president-chancellor of the country’s only historically black university system. 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.
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, but those opportunities helped me move forward,” Shields continued. “The opportunities I had at Graceland 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.”
“Graceland gave me the insight and self-awareness I needed to get my first job in higher education at the University of Iowa College of Law,” Shields recalled, telling the story of how he went out of his way to reach out and acknowledge the University of Iowa law school professional who admitted him after graduating from Graceland. That person went on to become an important mentor to Shields, who said, “I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t identified a mentor at Iowa.”
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.
As he prepares for his new position at Southern, he 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.”
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