by Madison V. Fisler
April 15, 2014. Almost one year ago to the day, on April 18, 2013, Chancellor Ken Peacock shocked the Appalachian State University body when he announced that he would be stepping down from his position at Appalachian State University once a suitable successor was found.
Appalachian State University’s Chancellor Ken Peacock has been at the helm of the institution for a decade, and has spent 31 years employed at the university. Over the years, Chancellor Peacock has seen many changes, taken part in many transitions and worked toward the betterment of the university and the university family.
With just two months left until he hands over the reins to chancellor-elect Sheri Noren Everts in July, High Country Press sat down with him to reflect on his tenure at Appalachian and to learn what has made this university’s chancellor stick around for so long.
“To have been here 31 years, I don’t think I could have been,” Peacock said sitting on a couch in his office on a rainy Tuesday morning in Boone.
“When I say it, I think, I can’t be 31 years old yet! Because when you’re around young people that really stretches you and keeps you young. In 31 years on campus, and for ten of those as chancellor, it has been an incredible experience. It has been an opportunity for me that I never dreamed I would have. It has been absolutely wonderful. So many things have been accomplished, but I don’t want people to think that I accomplished them. A team did. A lot of people worked very hard and share in any accolades, because we all just worked together so well.”
Dr. Ken Peacock began his tenure as chancellor of Appalachian State University a decade ago, after many years as a dean and as a professor. Looking back on his time at Appalachian, Dr. Peacock has many fond memories of a long and decorated career that surprised even him.
“Honestly, my wife (Rosanne) and I thought when we moved here that we would be here four or five years, that’s what happens in higher education,” Peacock said.
“I just wanted to be a good professor. I came and had a great opportunity and I loved my students. I still keep in touch with many of them. I was very content, I came here as a professor to teach from the University of Virginia and I just loved it. The classroom was great. You get here and you begin to say, why would we want to leave? We love the climate, our sons loved the school system. I never thought I would stay here 31 years and I never thought I would be in this job either. A door opened to become a dean and then a door opened to serve as chancellor and that was incredible for me, so we gave it a shot.”
Peacock reflected on what he considered the highlights of his tenure at the university with a smile.
“Highlights,” Peacock said. “The creation of the Health Sciences College, the creation of that, that’s the coming greatest need we find in our state and thus in our nation and Appalachian is preparing young people extremely well to go into those fields. Also, introducing the P.A. [physician’s assistant] program being brought to us by Wake Forest University, seeing the Health College birthed and then seeing it grow has been a point of pride for me. And then the creation of the ACCESS program. When you see these young people that come to Appalachian from families that are below the poverty level and you talk to them later they never dreamed they could go to college. Especially when I see them before they graduate, they are so excited and ready to change the world. It changes their lives and the lives of others that will follow them. They are breaking that chain of poverty, and I think that is something I will always share as a great moment for me.”
Dr. Peacock spoke about the creation of the honors college and his pride in seeing young people at the university succeed.
With a laugh, Dr. Peacock remembered the times that crowds of Appalachian students flocked to the door of the Chancellor’s Residence after victories.
“I have to say, also, that it is nothing that I did, but just the openness of the students to come to my house at night at 2 a.m. to celebrate with me victories that are their victories, and them coming to share that good news with me [was a highlight].”
And with a smile, “People would call me to say ‘3,000 students are coming, stay inside,’ and I would ask ‘who are the students?’ Because if they are Appalachian students I’m not about to stay inside. I want to share in their good news! That openness has meant a lot to me. The students felt they could come in the middle of the night to share great news. And they did.”
Dr. Peacock has always been known to spend time with students whether at football games, in meetings or just on Sanford Mall.
“I love the students, there is no doubt, I love them,” he said. “When I started, people didn’t like my phrasing about ‘students first, quality in all.’ If I put students first that means I want to attract and retain the best faculty and staff anywhere, and I do want to do that. It goes back to building a strong institution. They keep me young, and I like that. Sometimes they would share things with me I really didn’t want to hear, but I do need to hear that. I need to celebrate with them and talk to them when they have challenges. It means a lot that they have perceived me as I am, willing to listen to them. If they have an issue, then I have that issue too.”
Dr. Peacock remembers fondly all the commencement ceremonies that he attended to bid farewell to graduating seniors, and anyone in attendance will remember the line of students getting backed up because of all the new graduates wanting to stop and have a conversation with Dr. Peacock while crossing the stage.
“We really don’t have time to talk, but I wish that I could have the time for each student to sit down and talk a few minutes.”
After 31 years in Boone, Dr. Peacock seems to have found a home in the High Country.
“You can’t find a more beautiful place than Boone, North Carolina,” he said.
“I think the thing that means so much is the sense of community that is here, people know this is a special place. When I go out and try to sell Appalachian to prospective freshmen, I do my best, but I have to tell them that I can’t do it justice. They have to come and walk this campus and feel this place.”
And though he and his wife is an only child, Dr. Peacock found an irreplaceable sense of family on the campus.
“This is absolutely a family to me,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that everything is smooth and easy. In a family, you have squabbles and differences of opinion but a family works through it. There is a respect on this campus that I think is unique, a respect for each other as faculty, as colleagues and that is what makes Appalachian unique.”
Dr. Peacock admits that what he will miss the most about Appalachian State University isn’t tangible, but is in the simple moments that make it all worth it.
“What will I miss the most? Well, some days things are challenging, there is a budget crisis so day after day that gets to you. So sometimes I will take a moment. I go outside and walk around Sanford Mall. I walk around and I hear the students say ‘Hey Peacock! What’s happening?’ and I just think, that’s why I’m here. I will miss that spontaneous interaction with them. I will miss being able to go to student performances. I will miss looking up from the sidelines [of football games] and see thousands of students all smiling and pulling for their school. There is something about that that nothing else matches and I really do enjoy that.”
The university has undergone many changes, both tangible and intangible, through the decades that Dr. Peacock has been here.
“The quality of young persons that apply to Appalachian has changed,” he said. “That means our curriculum has changed. I have seen us grow in terms of quality, grow in terms of quantity of very fine young people that come to Appalachian. I think we have seen this university step up in really challenging times. These last few years have been very challenging and the strength of Appalachian shows when put under pressure because the faculty and staff realize that the person in this office can’t control the revenue picture. They know that and so they pull together. The thing that makes me the proudest is that the quality has not diminished at all even though we have had much fewer resources.”
But while Chancellor Peacock has overseen and implemented many changes to Appalachian State University during his three decades in various positions, the most surprising thing is the ways that the campus has changed him.
“The school has changed me in this way: it has let me see and experience the true value of what an education can do,” he said.
“I am an only child, a first generation college student. I would never have had an opportunity such as this without a formal education. It gives individuals an opportunity to do things that they really can’t imagine. It taught me that it’s alright to dream. Dreams come true. I think by serving in this role, I have seen that someone you would have thought a few decades ago wouldn’t be head of Appalachian… it happened.”
But even the dream job comes with its challenges.
“The most challenging part, and frustrating I will say, is that a lot of times you are asked questions and you can’t answer them. Under this confidentiality, there are things you can’t discuss. You have to be quiet and I just want to tell it. But we are not allowed to do that. It’s the same thing with the finances. That is very frustrating and very challenging.”
“The job that I am about to leave, honestly, is not the job that I accepted ten years ago, because the demands have changed so much. I wish the days had more time, more hours in the day because there is stuff I want to do but time is out and you just can’t get it done. There is so much talent that is on this campus, so much ability among the faculty here that there’s so many things I wish I could have done for them. I wish we had more space, I wish we had more money, but that has been the toughest part and I think the part I would want to change is to be able to talk, lay it out on the table and tell them where we are.”
As head of the university, Dr. Peacock has seen firsthand the contentions between the university and the town of Boone. From his vantage point, Dr. Peacock along with town and campus authorities have made strides to strengthen the relationship between the town and the university.
“I understand that if you have a growing university like Appalachian in a small town like Boone, I understand the residents’ concern,” he said.
“They don’t want anything to change their wonderful lifestyle, and one reason why I love Boone so much is the small town community feel. We want Appalachian to be a great corporate citizen and a great supporter of the town and the life that’s here. If I were a resident sitting here, you would think the university was taking us over. We have improved the relationship somewhat, we are working together on a growth plan, we work together in formulating these plans and ideas for the future. That is a positive thing. Sometimes we get so busy over here that we don’t hear what their concerns might be until it blows up in the paper and we think, ‘where did that come from?’ This will allow the new chancellor to have an ear in that and to hear what these concerns are and work through them.”
When asked about his hopes for the future of the university, Dr. Peacock sat in thought for a few moments. Then he continued:
“My hope for Appalachian is that it can continue to grow and develop,” he said. “Just to see the energy on this campus unleashed. I would like to see more graduate programs. I think we are at that level, we have that expertise on this campus. Our mission statement ties our hands a bit, but I would like to see that untied to go forth and do what we can.”
But when asked about his personal plans for the future, Dr. Peacock was all smiles.
“I want to nap when I want to, eat when I want to, I just want some down time,” he said with a laugh.
“It has been ten years, 24/7 and I knew that coming into the job. Nothing has been a surprise there. But after ten years I’m ready to have some me time. I want two months and then I will decide, and I haven’t decided but somehow I think that young people will be part of that. I have had people call and ask about certain opportunities, not at this level, but I keep saying ‘not now.’ Because I know if I accept something I would start thinking about that job with this job and Appalachian provides enough challenges for me. I want to stay focused on Appalachian as long as I am in this job.”
“My wife says I’ll never make it two months that I’m just not wired that way, but I said ‘just give me a shot!'”
In the near future, the Peacocks plan to move back to their home in Winston-Salem, where they have a home, where Dr. Peacock had his first job at Price Waterhouse and where he met his wife, Rosanne.
“We want to go back to Winston and honestly, the first two months, I don’t want to do anything. I just want to read. I have some books stacked up and I would just like to read them.”
But before he goes, Dr. Peacock hopes that his legacy is one that makes a difference.
“I guess I hope that my legacy would be that I made a difference in the lives of young people, that some way I touched them. They are the future and they have the skills to guide our state, nation and world. It’s not that I want a legacy of any one thing, but that overall, in ten years, I made a difference.”
After a decade at the helm, Chancellor Ken Peacock did not want to leave without sending his sincere thanks to his support system at the university.
“I would say a heartfelt thank you, because they allowed me to do it my way,” he said.
“It wasn’t always the popular way but they allowed me. You will find here faculty, staff and students are very forgiving and understanding. At this point, I do have a very sincere appreciation for them allowing me to have this incredible opportunity of leadership and a heartfelt thanks for letting me do it my way. I believe in authentic leadership and they accepted me with my strengths and weaknesses, and they allowed me.”
When asked if he had anything else to add, he smiled and brought up his at-home support system, his family.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t say my thanks for the support from my family. It has been 38 years that we’ve been married and I got lucky because I did it right. I have a wonderful spouse that supports me in this job and she is very involved on campus. Not everyone finds that, so I have been very blessed, and my two sons grew up when I was just starting this job and they are outstanding in the way they accepted me. I really appreciate my family for all of their support.”
“This is not a job you do by yourself,” he said. “You have to have a team in the office and a personal team at home and they all support and pull with you and I have been blessed. Blessed to have that.”