After serving the university as chancellor for five and a half years and through the peak of COVID-19, Randy Pembrook is set to retire on Feb. 28.
Pembrook said the thing he found most interesting about serving the university through COVID-19 is that typically universities have developed traditions and protocols based on years of patterns, but as a university, they had to reinvent themselves on a consistent basis.
“It felt like we were creating new ways of doing university almost every semester,” Pembrook said. “And so in the spring of 2020, in one week, we became a 100% online university. We'd never done that before. If someone had asked, ‘Is it possible?’, we probably would have said, ‘No, it's not possible,’ and yet we did it in two weeks.”
Having taken over as SIU President 10 days before going completely remote, Dan Mahony said it presented a unique set of challenges, but that he appreciated Pembrook’s thoughtfulness and attention to detail in making sure the students, faculty and staff were safe.
Dean of the School of Medicine Jerry Kruse said he believes Pembrook had the perfect balance of seeing the big picture and having the right amount of detailed knowledge to lead his team forward, particularly in the case of COVID-19.
“He worked very collaboratively with the entire system, with President Mahony, [SIUC] Chancellor Lane, with me [and] with all of the various institutions to do a very good risk/benefit analysis based on the incomplete information that we had, and the uncertainty that we were dealing with in order to set the risk benefit needle in a very good place to maximize safety, but allow some of the usual function to occur.”
Another area Pembrook worked to make strides in was in issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, which Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership J.T. Snipes — having worked with him through the Anti-Racism Task Force — said he thinks Pembrook has been particularly committed to.
“We've had several racist incidents happen on campus,” Snipes said. “After one of those events, one of the things that Chancellor Pembrook asked a roomful of administrators, genuinely and honestly … [was], ‘How are we getting better? Because we've had these racist incidents before and I want to know how we're working to make this space more safe, more loving, more caring, and more kind for students of color.’ I just appreciated that because I think there are a lot of administrators who will ask those questions but not mean it, and I think when he asked the question about how we support students, how we love them, he means it.”
Pembrook also helped to create the position of Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, which Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Jeffery Waple said he thought was a defining moment for him, particularly having done so through a pandemic. Jessica Harris, who filled this position, said Pembrook has inspired her leadership through his approachability, character and integrity.
President of the SIUE Faculty Senate Eric Wrobbel said he believes this approachability, combined with his willingness to listen is incredibly important. Wrobbel said during Pembrook’s first semester at SIUE, he invited him to one of his applied communications classes to listen to student speeches on what they wanted the chancellor to know.
“We had one student who said, in the course of her speech, that she was a transfer student, and the transfer process was so horrible that she was leaving,” Wrobbel said. “After class, the chancellor said to me, ‘What are we going to do about this woman in your class?’ And I said, ‘Well, let's get together and talk to her,’ and we did. We actually came up with a project involving transfer students and figuring out ways to help them we got her involved in the project. She ended up staying, she ended up getting a master's degree in student personnel, and now she does advising.”
Student Government President Hailee O’Dell said she’s appreciated his receptiveness and support during their monthly meetings as well.
“I always feel like, when I leave a meeting with Dr. Pembrook, something happened and he understood me and he took the time to listen to me, which as students, that's not very common,” O’Dell said.
Pembrook said he enjoyed many things during his time at SIUE, but watching students graduate was the most impactful for him.
“I think the most special experiences for me were commencement, just to see everybody graduate,” Pembrook said. “Students are always so happy when they get to that point and to talk to parents on that day … it just was very special for me.”
He said he hopes students will come back to campus often and stay involved in the area as he believes the university offers many opportunities for people even beyond a college degree, and that he wants to thank the students, faculty and staff at SIUE for their support.
“As I kind of get close to that March 1 retirement, just so many kinds of people have stopped by to say hello …. I've had some students stop by and just say thank you for being here,” Pembrook said. “So, I just want to express my gratitude to all the individuals at SIUE [and those] part of the SIU system who have made this just an incredible experience for me.”