In the C-Suite: Colleen Perry Keith Goldey-Beacom College President
PIKE CREEK – Colleen Perry Keith has spent a career in higher education, but when she was a young girl growing up in a small upstate New York town, she only had one dream.
“I wanted to be Mary Tyler Moore and work in TV news,” she said with a laugh, recalling the hours of watching the top-rated eponymous ‘70s CBS sitcom.
It was a dream that Perry Keith held all the way through high school, but it was one of those twists of fate that likely put her career on a very different path. She graduated from her small class in a consolidated high school about 30 minutes north of Syracuse as salutatorian. The high school received a single full scholarship to Syracuse University, home of the renowned Newhouse School of Communications – but her class’s valedictorian chose to attend Syracuse.
With her dreams dashed of being able to attend the college of her dreams, Perry Keith eventually attended and graduated from the New York state university system with a degree in political science.
After graduating, she began working for Kelly Services, a long-running temporary staffing agency, and moved to Pittsburgh. What would normally be a footnote in many careers left a lasting impression on Perry Keith though.
“The steel mill industry was really closing up in this country at that point [in the early 1980s]. Steel jobs were moving overseas,” she said. “Mill workers would come in because they’ve been laid off from their jobs and they’re used to making union wages of $40 or $50 an hour, but the only thing we had for them was minimum-wage jobs or industrial positions.”
Perry Keith said at the time she recognized the need to connect with high schoolers about their futures and help prepare them for job opportunities they would encounter.
She would earn a master’s degree in educational counseling and later found positions in academic advisement at a community college and a four-year university. While working in higher education, she found a knack for being assigned the problem cases.
“When things were broken and needed to be fixed, my supervisors would always put me in those positions to fix something, make it better, get it working, and then make sure I’ve got the right people in place to run it. I guess that’s a good skill for a college president,” she said.
When asked why she thought she was selected by her supervisors for those cases, Perry Keith replied, “I think because I don’t suffer inefficiency well.”
Perry Keith spent about two decades working in higher education or education-focused nonprofit work in Ohio when a friend and former colleague asked her to explore an opportunity to lead Spartanburg Methodist University, a private Methodist two-year college in South Carolina.
She politely accepted the search materials, which sat on her kitchen counter for a few weeks until her husband, Barry, who had leafed through them, also suggested that she take a closer look.
“Barry is a born and bred Ohioan who had never lived anywhere else and his family was there. I said to him, ‘I don’t know that you’re really going to want to leave.’ And he said to me, ‘No, really. I would love to have new experiences and I’m never going to have that chance, unless you do things like this,’” Perry Keith said.
In the end, she was offered the position of university president, surprising her as she knew she was competing against at least one sitting president for the job. Perry Keith stayed for more than six years, helping the small college raise $18 million and building a new building on the campus. One of the few private two-year schools in the country, she also helped bridge the gap between those who wanted Spartanburg to move to a four-year curriculum and those who didn’t – it began offering its first bachelor’s degrees in the past few years.
Her time at SMU was also marked by a personal battle, as she was diagnosed with breast cancer at the end of her first year. Perry Keith underwent surgery and chemotherapy, losing her hair just days before her inauguration ceremony and forcing her to find a wig.
The diagnosis didn’t slow her enthusiasm for the job, recalling that she only missed about 10 and a half days during her 18 months of treatment.
“The work and the students really kept me going,” she said.
The health scare did convince her to find more balance in her life in pursuits outside of work, including spending time outdoors, visiting with her family and attending youth baseball games coached by Barry.
“As a result of having had cancer, I learned to say no a lot more,” she said.
In 2015, Perry Keith moved north to take the helm of Pfeiffer University, another Methodist institution with which she was familiar.
“It was interesting work that I was brought into there,” she said, noting that during her tenure they created graduate-level physician assistant and occupational therapy programs, and refinanced the rural school’s debt through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to help get it on a good financial foundation.
By 2019 though, Perry Keith was assessing her life and seeking to get closer to her family, including a son in Washington, D.C., and parents still living in upstate New York. It was then that she came across the opportunity at Goldey-Beacom College, the small private, four-year college off Limestone Road. She quickly recognized that the situation at GBC was very different from her previous charges.
“They really don’t get the respect they deserve,” Perry Keith said, noting that her first two colleges held endowments under $20 million while Goldey-Beacom’s endowment is about $190 million. “What I saw was a place that needed some life breathed into it and needed to have people feel like they have a voice and can make a decision.”
One of the first things Perry Keith did was start a strategic planning initiative but taking a bottom-up approach that college leaders weren’t used to, she said. The COVID-19 pandemic has also helped her convince leaders to explore making further modern changes, like pursuing accreditation for fully online degree programs.
“They operated like a business, but they didn’t operate like the business of higher education,” Perry Keith said.
A running thread throughout her entire career has been her ability to break glass ceilings, becoming the first woman president at each of the three colleges that she has led. For Perry Keith, it’s not a fact that she spends a lot of time dwelling on.
“I am aware of it, and I try to use it for good to help others be able to see that they can do something if they want to. But I always just figured that [the opportunities came because] I’ve worked hard, it’s pretty hard to outwork me,” she said with a smile.