After 26 years at Eastern Mennonite University in leadership positions with several programs, Dean Sue Cockley has touched hundreds of students, faculty and staff – from those in the adult degree completion program to graduate and seminary studies and more recently undergraduate faculty – and helped to shape and guide many of the institution’s core programs for adult learners.
Planning ahead, one might say, would be a strength for a leader like Cockley. But now, with her retirement date set for June 2022, she says “in a sudden turn of character, I have almost no plans!” The prospect feels “very daring,” she adds, to step out of the confining cycle of the academic timetable and role and into the unknown.
She’s looking forward to spending time with her husband, Dave, recently retired as a professor in health sciences at James Madison University; their two adult children, including daughter Kate Cockley Clark ‘07, professor of nursing at EMU; and grandchildren. “And I’ll probably clean out some closets and organize family photos, but beyond that, it’ll be an adventure!”
It’s an “adventure” well-deserved. Cockley has held several transitional roles in which she had key responsibilities through a time of realignment and restructuring. In fall 2018, she began serving as the first dean of EMU’s School of Theology, Humanities and Performing Arts. From 2016 through spring 2018, she was successively an associate graduate dean, graduate dean, and graduate and seminary dean.
In a retirement tribute last month, longtime colleague Provost Fred Kniss expressed gratitude for Cockley’s expansive and generous spirit of leadership. “We are so grateful that, whenever EMU called you to new responsibility, you found a way to say ‘yes,’ and embraced the risks that come with change.”
Cockley says that she “never set out to be a dean.” Nevertheless, the last several years have been, “on the whole, very satisfying, especially in the challenges of problem solving with others and helping people grow in their own ways.”
In some ways Cockley’s trajectory reflects her own growth model as a student of organizational change, management, and empowering leadership.
After designing community education programs with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Haiti and Kentucky in the 70s and 80s, Cockley flourished in her calling. She went on to hold a range of positions, including as a national trainer for Literacy Volunteers of America, Vista volunteer in adult education programs in West Virginia, adult education specialist in Virginia, and director of the Adult Educator’s Research Network. She also earned a master’s degree in adult education from Marshall University in West Virginia.
The MCC connection was what led her to EMU. “In the late 1970s, Dave and I did an MCC term and started a program in a village in the Central Plateau in Haiti. Ten years later, Chris Gingerich [former professor of business] and his wife Eileen were stationed nearby and closed the program. When we met Chris and Eileen at church, we got together to talk about Haiti over dinner and Chris mentioned that the Adult Degree Program was looking for a new director.”
She arrived at EMU in 1996 to direct the Adult Degree Completion Program and was tapped in 2012 to to develop and then direct the new MA in Organizational Leadership program. She further explored the role of education while earning a doctorate in the social foundations of education at University of Virginia.
She counts those years with students in EMU’s ADCP program, which continues today as the Leadership and Organizational Management program, as thoroughly fulfilling.
“One of the things I am most proud of in my work here is the time I spent with ADCP students,” she said. “I often see problems in the world and feel helpless to do anything about them. At a time when earning a bachelor’s degree was an important step toward earning a living wage, providing an accessible, high quality degree completion program for working adults was something real that EMU and I could do to help individuals.”
Graduates of the program, which started in Harrisonburg in 1993 and in Lancaster in 1997, number more than 1,100.
“Sue led ADCP to dramatic growth in both its size and its distinctive excellence and her impact on this region by way of ADCP’s many graduates now in the workforce is a legacy in which she can take great pride,” Kniss said.
From leading both the ADCP and MAOL programs, Cockley was asked to step into bigger roles.
She was willing in part because of her colleagues — people who are committed to doing their best in sometimes difficult constraints of the institutional environment, she said. “Over the years I have become more and more impressed with folks at EMU, as I’ve gotten to know them better, to become aware of what is important to them and the challenges they face.”
Interacting with faculty dedicated to creating optimal environments for adult learners who brought their own tremendous strengths and experiences to the classroom created a rich immersive learning environment, she said. Now Cockley can reflect on those influences in her professional career as well as in her transition to retirement. “Working on developing the MA in organizational leadership caused me to really think about my own leadership strengths and weaknesses, and later, working with the seminary has underscored for me the importance of spiritual formation as an opportunity for real growth at a time in my life when formal education is over.”
And thank goodness, she adds!
Sue was honored at an April reception with other EMU retirees; participation in news coverage is voluntary. Read other news articles about transitions for Dave King, Nancy Heisey, Jayne Docherty, and Dave Detrow. Share your good wishes and fond memories in the comment box below and we’ll make sure she sees them.