UCCS Chancellor Pam Shockley-Zalabak has withstood both the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, and the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression at the helm of the constantly expanding local University of Colorado campus. She’s seen state support shrink and student loans grow — and says that her biggest challenge is juggling educational quality with budgetary needs.

After becoming a full-time instructor at the school in 1980 in the communication department, the Oklahoma native rose to the university’s highest position in 2001.  She is next in line to serve as chairwoman for the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance, and says it’s important to support the local community.

This week, Shockley-Zalabak — who insists everyone call her by her first name — sat down with the Business Journal to discuss her dedication to UCCS students and the university’s challenges.

Why did you decide on a career in higher education?

I chose to be a communication major in a way I do not recommend. I was from a tiny town of 297 people [Drummond, Okla.] with 11 people in my high school graduating class. So when I went to Oklahoma State to enroll — and in those days you had to stand in line and meet with advisers — the line for the undecided majors (the line I planned to join) seemed bigger to me than my entire hometown. The line right next to it was for communication majors and there weren’t many people, so I told my mother who was with me, “Let’s go over there,” because I knew I enjoyed things like debate and theater. I planned to change my major, but — long story short — I never did and I received my undergraduate, master’s and Ph.D. in communication.

What brought you to Colorado?

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After I got married, my husband and I had been traveling a great deal for work and decided we wanted to live where we liked to play [in Colorado Springs]. I called the university [UCCS] because by that time, I had become very enamored with teaching.

It was a strange experience,  because the woman I called in the dean’s office asked if I could start immediately. What I didn’t understand was they had lost their only communication faculty person the day before and school started in a week. And from there, the rest is history. I started teaching and fell in love with the students. I taught mostly at night and loved the energy level and types of students we had.

When and how did you become chancellor at UCCS?

I became interim chancellor in 2001 and the permanent chancellor in 2002. But I took on all of the responsibilities in 2001, two weeks after 9/11.

I will never forget it for a host of reasons. For one, because of the trauma in the country and two, the need to adjust to a very rapidly changing environment. Our budgets were cut and we gave back money to the state in January 2002. We had buildings boarded up because they were in construction and stopped. In Colorado, we have to have a balanced budget and the revenue was decreasing exponentially.

Has that been one of the biggest challenges in your role?

Yes. The changing business model for higher education has been an enormous challenge because we couldn’t plan for it and it came immediately.

For example, shifting much of the cost from being funded by the state to being funded by students and their families. How do you keep that as modest of an increase in tuition as you can and maintain quality?

When I became chancellor, roughly 54 cents of every dollar in our budget came from the state. Today, it’s between 7 and 8 cents.

How have you overcome the challenge?

I’ve learned that you have to have a team of faculty and staff who are committed to looking at new and different ways to get things done.

We focused on that which we could control, and then monitored that which we could not control. In other words, we learned to not wait for state support to return.

Why do you invest in the community?

The community has had some economically difficult times as much as the university. I fundamentally believe that an educational institution needs to be a part of the fabric of the community because then you understand workforce development, and how you can produce the kinds of quality individuals that make our whole environment better. And I want UCCS to be very good for the community.