KOKOMO, Ind. — Lead from where you are.
This philosophy — inviting those around her to see opportunities and take bold steps to achieve them — has guided Susan Sciame-Giesecke during her 10 years as Indiana University Kokomo’s Chancellor.
It came to her in her first hours as interim chancellor, following the sudden departure of her predecessor in 2012.
“In my own mind, I knew I could not do this by myself,” she said. “I told my colleagues, ‘I need you to come with me.’ It would take all of us to overcome that challenging time. People continued to do what they needed to do. We did not lose our momentum. We really took off after that. We all came together.”
Under her leadership, IU Kokomo has experienced record enrollment and graduation rates, and launched numerous degrees, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The Main Building received a $14 million renovation, with the space essentially gutted to create modern new learning spaces, places for students to gather and collaborate, a food and nutrition lab, and more. Additions included the Cole Fitness Center, a greenhouse, and the Student Activities and Events Center, an $8.4 million space that is not only home to Cougar athletics but is also used for campus and community events.
In addition to leading IU Kokomo, Sciame-Giesecke has been responsible for IU’s five regional campuses for the last year, as interim executive vice president, leading collaborative efforts to maximize opportunities for student success. She has been responsible for university-wide academic initiatives and programs, external academic relations and online education.
As she begins a new role as IU vice president for regional campuses and online education, Sciame-Giesecke reflected on how leading from where she was impacted the campus and community — and how she can build on IU’s success with her experience.
Based on a regional campus her entire career, she looks forward to the challenge of leading statewide, with the potential for greater impact.
“To be able to support other regional campuses is a challenge I could not pass up,” she said. “We need to continue to be stewards of place and lift up the regions we serve throughout the state of Indiana. I know we can make a difference in our college going rates and provide the state of Indiana with a well-educated workforce.”
At the end, she said, everything she did was about creating opportunities for IU Kokomo students.
“I hope I’m remembered as someone who was a champion for students,” she said. “That would make me feel good if I knew that everything I did in my career, the work I did, was really all about the students.”
Early years as a communications professor
Leading as chancellor was a role she never could have imagined when she arrived at IU Kokomo in 1977 as a newly hired assistant professor of communication. Coming from a Chicago suburb, and having just earned her master’s degree, she didn’t plan to stay long.
“It’s an unusual story,” she said. “I don’t know that there are too many people who start as a professor and end as chancellor. I thought I was going to stay for a few years and then leave for my doctorate.”
Instead, she began building a community around herself, both professionally and personally.
“It was a little scary at first, coming from a large city,” she said. “Now I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. I became committed to the Kokomo community and wanted it to succeed.”
She put down roots, marrying Dan Giesecke, who owned a business in Kokomo, and raising daughters Lauren and Lindsey. She earned tenure and completed her Ph.D. while teaching speech communication to undergraduates.
Sciame-Giesecke also learned from campus leaders, like Chancellor Emerita Emita Hill, “who was probably my first true mentor, who tapped me on the shoulder to say I had leadership potential.”
Stuart Green, who ended his IU Kokomo career as interim chancellor, and Chancellor Emerita Ruth J. Person also played important roles to her.
“It wasn’t what they said,” she recalled. “It was just the fact they invited me into projects and had faith and confidence that I could pull it off. I’ve always had an interest in doing something different, or something more.”
Though she hadn’t formalized her “lead from where you are” philosophy, she lived it. When she saw something missing, she started it, organizing a speech team, a theatre department, a student activities office, freshman learning communities, and the Enhancing Minority Attainment conference.
“I was always working on an interesting project, and that kept me motivated,” she said. “Even though I’ve been here 45 years, I’ve done a lot of different things in addition to teaching. All of it was about getting students involved and helping them succeed.”
She continued moving up the career ladder, as coordinator for the communication arts program, assistant vice chancellor for academic affairs, chair of the humanities department, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, and executive vice chancellor for academic affairs.
Stepping into a new role as chancellor
One role that hadn’t crossed her mind was chancellor — until then-IU President Michael A, McRobbie pressed her into service as interim during a sudden change of leadership. With the campus at a crossroads, faculty and staff were looking to her to guide them in how to move forward.
“I enjoyed the work I did on the academic side of the house,” she said. “I loved being with the faculty and the students, and that isn’t the focus of the chancellor role. After serving in the interim role. I saw I could impact in other ways.”
Sciame-Giesecke became IU Kokomo’s seventh chancellor in April 2014 — a role she valued. “You know you impact a lot of people’s lives when you sit in this seat,” she said. “You want to move the organization in the right way. You want to leave it better than you found it, so you question your decisions. It weighs on you, and it’s with you 24/7.”
Surrounding herself with strong leaders was a key factor in her success.
“You want to find people who buy into the campus vision, but also will challenge you so you make good decisions,” she said. “That was my blessing, to have those people. I wanted people who were visionary, who looked to the future, weren’t afraid to make decisions, and could collaborate and communicate.”
KEY program provides distinctive experience
In an increasingly competitive market to attract students, she challenged her team to find what made IU Kokomo distinctive — which led to the IU Kokomo Experience and You, or KEY Program. KEY experiences are woven through students’ time on campus, from the KEY Summer Institute to prepare them for college success before their first classes, to travel experiences that have included the Field Museum in Chicago, Google Headquarters in San Francisco, Yellowstone National Park, and behind-the-scenes at the Walt Disney World Resort. KEY also includes hands-on internships, using skills learned in the classrooms as consultants to local businesses and not-for-profits, and researching and presenting with faculty at national professional conferences.
Since 2016, more than 1,000 students have participated in KEY experiences — and most are free or low cost, making them available to all students. Removing the barrier of cost, to include the greatest number of students possible, is a point of pride for Sciame-Giesecke, who wants all students to be able to participate.
“Students get so excited when they recount the learning that took place in these experiences, and on these trips,” she said. “They also often mention the number of friends they make, and the connections created with their faculty.”
Campus growth brings diversity and opportunities
An influential member of her team was the late Gerry Stroman, who was her first chief of staff. Sciame-Giesecke recalled she could count on Stroman for sound advice, and to be the voice championing diversity, equity and inclusion.
Stroman, who passed away in April 2021, would be proud of the campus’s Multicultural Center, which opened in November 2020 as a resource for all students, and a place for those from underrepresented populations to have their unique needs met. It houses the Black Student Center, the LGBTQ+ Center, the Latinos Unidos: Hispanic Center, International Student Services, and the coordinator for student life and campus diversity.
The Center was much needed, with a growing number of students of color included in the record-breaking enrollment growth in recent years. The campus reached a high of 3,227 students in fall 2021.
Athletic programs contributed to the growth, by adding a new element of the total college experience. The program began in 2011 with 19 athletes in women’s volleyball and men’s basketball. Today, there are 14 varsity sports, with about 230 athletes participating.
The women’s volleyball team has won multiple River States Conference championships, and the men’s basketball team recently won its first, and advanced to the Sweet 16 in the NAIA tournament. Track athlete Grant Gaylor won the campus’s first NAIA national championship, in shot put, in 2021.
“Athletics has added another dimension to a vibrant and active campus,” she said, adding that the student-athletes are among the best students. “The games bring an energy to the campus. The athletes come from so many different states and even countries, so they bring diversity to the campus, too.”
Students also made IU Kokomo a campus of choice for the wide variety of degrees, including new offerings in hospitality and tourism management, sport and recreation management, computer science, new media, art and technology, applied sciences, and the Family Nurse Practitioner graduate degree.
Under her leadership, the campus also experienced its most successful fundraising campaign ever, with more than $16 million garnered during the Bicentennial Campaign. Those funds benefit student scholarships and travel, paid for much of the Student Activities and Events Center, provided a new greenhouse for the School of Sciences, and much more.
While she’s excited to take on a larger role for IU, she also appreciates what the Kokomo campus offers.
“Now that I’m working in Bloomington and on a larger level, I know I made the right decision to stay at a small campus for so many years. This is where I belonged,” she said. “I’ve experienced the larger university, but it’s not the same. When you get to see the immediate impact of your work on students, faculty and staff, it’s more of a family."
Attending recent admissions dinners with potential students and their families brought it full circle. “I love every minute of this,” she said. “This is what I like to do. It was fun to sit with the families and their students and help them realize their dreams. It’s a great way to come to the end of this part of my career, to re-experience it.”
Education is KEY at Indiana University Kokomo.