First year in the books

President Riley reflects on the year, life and the future

Published by James Cressman, Date: April 25, 2024
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While some Slippery Rock University (SRU) seniors prepare to graduate and enter their next chapter, SRU’s 18th President, Karen Riley is wrapping up her first year at the university.

Riley, who has appeared and spoken at various events on campus over the course of the year has consistently been referred to as the “new president,” something she no longer considers herself.

“Someone introduced me the other day as the new president, and I was like ‘Am I really the new president?’ I’m just the president,” Riley said.

As the saying goes, time flies when you are having fun. For many, this year seems to have come and gone in a blink of the eye.

“I’m surprised at how quickly it went. It seemed like not that long ago that I was just unloading my stuff and wandering around campus getting to know people,” Riley said.

Wandering around, or at least walking is something that Riley has become known for during her time at SRU. On any given day, students may come across Riley as she takes a leisurely stroll around campus sometimes accompanied by her husband.

Getting out and about around campus is something Riley says she enjoys.

“One of the best parts of this job is being around the people,” Riley said.

For Riley, it is important that the president to be around faculty, staff and students and having those interactions.

At her most recent town hall event, Riley shared how grateful she was for the year the university experienced.

“I think we had a really nice year. I think there are things we can do better, things I learned I can do better, but we accomplished a lot in a relatively short amount of time,” she said.

According to Riley, the university’s success is a testament to everyone on campus working together.

Before Riley even started, she began working with Interim Assistant Director of Communication Justin Zackal to develop a 90-day communication plan. Communication is something Riley takes seriously.

“We said, this is how we’re going to communicate, we’re going to communicate more, we’re going to listen more, and we’re going to learn more,” Riley said.

Riley credits Zackal for playing a great role in helping to execute that plan.

“But also, that whole marketing team and our groups, they are thinking more about how to be more proactive around communications,” she said.

Of course, the 90-day communication plan was not the only project Riley, and her administration tackled this year.

Building the university’s strategic plan was another giant feat for the administration.

“This was certainly a case of building the plane while you were flying it,” Riley said.

There was an importance to ensuring communication, building-up fundraising and filling vacancies in key positions around campus.

“Sustainability, engagement with students in the community, all of those things were going on at the same time while we were finalizing [the strategic plan],” she said.

While Riley had hoped the plan would have come together faster, in the end she felt it was important to have as many eyes on the plan as possible, rather than it being rushed.

So how would Riley grade her first year in office?

“You know, kind of a solid B, I worked really hard, I tried my best and I would say I think there’s lots of room for improvement,” Riley said.

Navigating her first year here at SRU, Riley says there have been times when she has gotten it right and times when she has not.

“Sometimes I would think, ok, you know, I thought it was going to be like this and it was and other times, I would say I think it’s going to be like this, and it was completely not that,” she said.

In these moments Riley would pivot and adapt as the situation unfolded.

“[And] I would think to myself, next time I’m going to do that differently,” Riley said.

For Riley, there is not a moment she looks back on with regret.

“There’s not really anything that I would look back on and say, I didn’t give it my all. There was nothing left on the field so to speak,” she said.

Who is Karen Riley?

When not running to and from meetings and events, Riley is a family person through and through.

“This has been a great year for me, I’ve shared with anyone who will listen about becoming a grandmother, becoming a Nona [the Italian word for grandmother],” Riley said.

Riley’s son and daughter-in-law welcomed triplets around Thanksgiving.

While Riley and her family are geographically far apart, they are a close-knit family at heart.

“I am so fortunate, I have a really nice family, we’re very close. I care about my family,” she said.

Riley and her husband made the trip to be with her family for this momentous occasion.

“The Council of Trustees were very thoughtful, I was able to go out when the children were born, I was able to be there when they came home from the hospital,” Riley said.

Riley and her husband plan to travel when able over the summer to spend more time with them.

Presently, they are gearing up to travel to see their daughter and son-in-law for a long weekend in Florida after commencement.

“It’s a different way of doing things, rather than just kind of driving [to them], but I feel close to them,” she said.

It is easy to understand what it is about Riley that puts us all at ease whenever we have the opportunity to hear her speak. She brings the best parts of herself professionally and personally into her position.

Favorite movie

Like so many of us, Riley enjoys sitting down to a good movie, picking a favorite movie, however, was no easy task.

The process in which Riley used in order to choose one film, is something a lot of us can relate to.

“What’s a movie that if I see it’s on, that I will stop and watch again for the 9,000th time?” Riley asked.

So, what’s Riley’s favorite movie? “A League of their Own”.

For those who have never seen it, the movie follows two sisters who join the first all-female baseball league during WWII. Along with their teammates, the sisters struggle to help the team while balancing their own rivalry.

“I don’t know what it is about it, but the women that are in it are great. Tom Hanks is great. It’s a great story,” Riley said.

According to Riley, too often can we turn on the TV to shows and films depicting women, being terrible to one another rather than supporting and encouraging each other.

“Yet when you look at that [movie], there were so many moments where there were,” she said.

One scene from the movie has remained with Riley. One of the players is unable to read and is discreetly helped by one of the other women without bringing attention to the situation.

“It’s the idea that someone gently does that, right? Somebody recognizing, I bet that this person is struggling a little bit. I love the focus of that,” Riley said.

In a turn of coincidence, it is revealed to Riley during our interview that SRU had been considered for Amazon Prime’s “A League of their Own” series.

Perfect Friday night

According to Riley, the perfect Friday night after a long week is being able to spend time with family.

“I do love to go to the movies, I love to go out to eat and we try to eat in one of the local establishments once a week,” Riley said.

Giving back to community businesses that give so much to the university is important to Riley.

Riley can also be found at home enjoying a good book.

“I love to read. I don’t get to read as much as I would like, but sitting somewhere and just being lost in a book is something that I wish I had more time for,” she said.

“Star Wars” or “Star Trek?”

“My husband would say “Star Trek,” but I’m going to have to say, “Star Wars,” Riley said.

Riley recalled seeing the first “Star Wars” film in theaters while on a date in high school. Admittedly, she found some of the science fiction aspects of the film, “out there.”

“I went to see it with a guy who had just wanted to see [the film] so desperately. I remember thinking I had a good time partially because he just loved it, he could not get over it,” she said.

For Riley, that first film released in 1977 will always be her favorite, although, she also enjoyed the other two films that comprise the “original trilogy.”

“The ones that went back [in time; Episodes I-III] I enjoyed them, but I couldn’t remember who anybody was, so I’m not that big of a fan [laughs],” Riley said.

Even though she chose “Star Wars” over “Star Trek,” Riley says she has an easier time following the latter.

“My dad loved ‘Star Trek,’ the TV shows, so I at least knew who the people were [so that] when they did the prequel stuff I could kind of follow along,” she said.

Profound impact

During her inauguration speech, Riley shared that she was adopted at a young age.

“We probably all think of ourselves as fortunate to be born into the family we’re born into. For me, I think how fortunate that somebody said, ‘I don’t think I’m going to be able to take care of this baby and we’re going to need to let someone else take care of her,’” Riley said.

While it is not something she thinks about every day, when she does think about it, she recognizes it as one of the pivotal moments in her life.

It is something that could have gone in lots of different ways, how fortunate and grateful I am for that,” she said.

Another life event that had an impact on Riley was the loss of her father when she was a freshman in college.

“It kind of taught me, you know, I’m going to have some different responsibilities [now]. Luckily, I was given a lot of strength to go along,” Riley said.

Reflecting on the present, Riley reflects on how grateful she is for her husband Steve.

“I have a really good partner in life, somebody that is exceedingly supportive and thank goodness loves sports and goes to watch a million different games every day,” she said.
Riley credits her husband’s native ties to western Pennsylvania as being one of the things that made applying for her position so appealing.

Graduate advice

As she has done so many times throughout the year, Riley shared some gentle advice for the 2024 seniors.

“I will say this in my commencement remarks, exhibit grace to the people around you. Everyone is doing their best. Understanding that people are struggling with a variety of things, so providing them with grace is important. That’s how we get better. When you leave the university, there’s lots of changes out there, things will happen that you have absolutely no control over. Even when you work your best, and you work your hardest, there are things that you’re going to do, just like I led with, that you wish you had done better. Give yourself some grace, adopt that mindset for yourself. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Continue to work hard and then things will fall into place, but grace is a big thing for us to embrace, both for others and for ourselves.”

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