Radford’s Rainmaker

The university’s president is charismatic and competitive, sparking fierce loyalty from some and open opposition from others, but no one can deny that Penny Kyle has raised the bar at the 102-year-old institution.

As President Penelope W. Penny” Kyle walks by Radford University’s new College of Business and Economics—a $44 million facility called the “COBE” for short—students and faculty return her smiling wave. “This is a wonderful building,” says Nozar “Hash” Hashemzadeh, an economics professor who has been at Radford for 30 years. President Kyle “has gotten us the resources we need to do our work. She built the Taj Mahal here. How many other universities build something like this?”

It’s been more than seven years since Kyle came to Radford, which was established in 1910 as the State Normal and Industrial School for Women at Radford; the school held its first classes in 1913. During her tenure, the university community has learned what to expect of Kyle—and what she expects of it. “I really wanted to make a difference. I wouldn’t have accepted this position if I didn’t believe that I could,” says the folksy yet refined Galax native. “There are probably some things I could have gotten done quicker—more quickly. But it’s not really the endgame, it’s the pain. We could have had less choppy water if I had been more cognizant of how to work in this environment. And so it isn’t about, ‘Well, did you ultimately get it done?’ It’s about how much more difficult the path was, and it didn’t need to be. And that was my fault.”

In June 2005, Kyle became Radford University’s sixth—and first female—president, fresh from serving 11 years under three governors as the executive director of the Virginia Lottery. “Taking the job I didn’t think would be controversial,” Kyle says. “That I was coming here from the Virginia Lottery was a huge negative. … I was so proud of what I had accomplished while I was at the Lottery, and it was astounding that there was so much talk about where I used to work. There still is.”

Despite the talk, since Kyle’s arrival, Radford University has secured approval and funding for more than $200 million in capital projects, with new construction including the state-of-the-art Covington Center for Visual and Performing Arts. The university has also renovated three major campus buildings, and Kyle has unpacked more plans for a new student fitness and wellness center, a new sciences building and new residence halls. In turn, she has pushed to have the university award its first doctoral degrees in counseling psychology and nursing practice. It has also gained approval for an additional doctorate in physical therapy and a master’s degree in occupational therapy. Kyle recently signed on for another five years, which will keep her at Radford through 2018, at least.

Listed four years in a row by the Princeton Review as one of the best colleges in the Southeast and named by U.S. News and World Report in 2010 as among the nation’s “top up and coming schools,” the 9,500-student university has also instituted sustainability policies that have placed Radford among the nation’s top green universities. (In 2009, Kyle signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, pledging to help make Radford University a sustainable and environmentally friendly campus.)

Despite these successes, some teachers at Radford may not have warmed to Kyle’s style—and may never. Perhaps that’s just because they don’t understand her, suggests Dr. Joseph Scartelli, Radford’s dean of visual and performing arts. “She’s very intelligent and very politically astute. She knows how to connect,” says Scartelli, who has been at Radford since 1981 and worked with three presidents. “And it’s not who she knows; it’s who she doesn’t know.”

Inspired by Kyle’s energy, Katherine Hawkins, Radford’s dean of humanities and behavioral sciences, came from South Carolina’s Clemson University in 2011 to join the faculty. “She’s a visionary. She is so persistent,” Hawkins says. “Once she decides, ‘I’m going after that goal,’ she figures out a way to make that happen. .… She just plows ahead. I’m just so impressed by that. She’s the kind of person that you hear her speak, and you just want to jump up and scream, ‘Hooray! I want to follow that person.’ She’s that charismatic.”

Not all at Radford have been so inspired. “Right,” the college president says. And why is that? “I don’t know,” answers Kyle, who is married to an attorney, and is the mother of three. “I am who I am. And it’s not really hidden away. And so, if you’re exposed to me, you get to know me fairly quickly.” Pondering her first couple of years on campus, she says misunderstandings grew by “the fact that I had little, if any, understanding of higher ed administration, you know, the secret handshakes and nods.”

Kyle’s only experience in higher education prior to taking the reins at Radford was the six years in the 1970s when she taught English at Thomas Nelson Community College in Hampton. (She also served on the board of visitors at James Madison University in Harrisonburg from 1982 to 1994.) A lawyer by trade, Kyle earned her law degree at the University of Virginia and then an MBA from the College of William & Mary. In addition to the Lottery, Kyle also served as an attorney with McGuire-Woods LLP in Richmond, and later joined CSX, becoming the company’s first female officer. Kyle knows business, and she runs Radford University like one.

From her stories-high office, Kyle scans a rocky ridge overlooking the New River where, about 20 miles away, lies Virginia Tech, the behemoth university that has long cast a shadow over Radford. Kyle calls that big school in Blacksburg a “competitor” in sports and for students. But Kyle won’t go helmet-to-helmet on the gridiron. Though she was the first woman to be elected president of the Big South Athletic Conference (2011), Radford has no football team, aside from football as a club sport. “I don’t have the money,” she says, “and I think we [already] have the Division I team here for Southwest Virginia right there, over that hill.”

She smiles when talking about the Hokies: “It would be difficult to compete” with them. But, as a twinkle forms in her eye she adds, “I am a vicious competitor. In everything.” Radford.edu

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