Michelle “Shelley” L. Milligan, EdD, associate provost, never takes the easy path and never wants to feel too comfortable.
Whether attending a male-dominated university that was accepting few women in its early years of going coed, or starting a doctoral program at the same time as a new full-time position — and the two were 900 miles apart — nothing rattles her.
Her philosophy? “You might as well go big or go home.”
Milligan’s attitude toward facing challenges head-on has served her well in her leadership roles in higher education administration.
Less than two years after graduating magna cum laude from Washington and Lee University in June 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in English and in French, she was named director of her alma mater’s nearly $3 million annual fund.
“Here I am, a 23-year-old female fundraising at an institution that hadn’t had very many female graduates of the university,” Milligan, 37, recalls. “When fundraising, much of what you do is meet with alums, all of whom at Washington and Lee were male at the time, and many of whom did not want women to be admitted to their hallowed institution.”
Not to be deterred, she helped double Washington and Lee’s annual fund during her six-year tenure at the Lexington, Va., institution.
She also managed to earn a master’s degree in higher education advancement in 2002 from Vanderbilt University, traveling nearly 500 miles to Nashville, Tenn., on weekends for two years.
While she says her fundraising success at Washington and Lee had a lot to do with the strength of the institution and the caliber and generosity of the alumni, search firms took note of her work, and Washington University in St. Louis recruited her.
She joined WUSTL’s Office of Alumni and Development Programs in 2002 as associate director of development for Arts & Sciences, where, among other responsibilities, she managed the capital fundraising projects for Arts & Sciences’ Laboratory Science Building and Earth and Planetary Sciences Building.
While planning building dedications, traveling to alumni events and doing annual fund and capital projects fundraising, she worked closely with Edward S. Macias, PhD, then dean of Arts & Sciences and executive vice chancellor.
He asked her to join his cabinet as assistant dean in Arts & Sciences when she was considering a job offer off-campus.
“I knew she worked very well with faculty, she understood the academic issues we were working on in Arts & Sciences, she was very well-organized and could take the lead to make things happen,” says Macias, now provost, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs and the Barbara and David Thomas Distinguished Professor in Arts & Sciences.
Shelley Milligan (top, second from left) with her “girls” from Young Life just before they head off to summer camp in Minnesota for a week. “I think it’s really important to give your life away and to be more than the title on your business card,” Milligan says.
“She was extremely effective in pretty much everything she did.”
Part of what makes her effective, Macias says — and others concur — is how well she works with people at all levels of the university and her integrity.
“She listens very carefully and helps people think through what the issues are and how to solve them,” Macias says.
As Milligan describes herself: “I think my personality is very externally focused. I like other people. I like hearing their stories and making a connection.
“It’s what faculty do with students — they invest in them and spend time teaching them things they’ve known for decades, but the student doesn’t know. There is just this fundamental belief in other people — that they are important and have a place.”
She also isn’t easily intimidated.
“I’m not afraid to say something or even tell the provost that I think he’s wrong or suggest something different,” she says. “We all need that around us. I think he knew that I would not have trouble finding a voice and speaking it.”
As assistant dean, she served as Arts & Sciences’ liaison to the university’s development effort, organized Arts & Sciences’ National Council, developed and managed Arts & Sciences’ Communications Office, and coordinated Arts & Sciences’ strategic planning effort.
When Macias was promoted to provost in 2009, he asked Milligan to join him in North Brookings as assistant provost for institutional initiatives.
One of her first challenges was re-creating an Office of the Provost, which last had existed as a stand-alone unit some 14 years earlier.
“The hardest thing to do is to conceive something out of nothing — when there’s no real model,” Macias says. “It was like getting a startup off the ground. Shelley was able to conceptualize things, figure out how they are going to work, take a chance and do them.”
She helped conceive and implement leadership develop opportunities for faculty and staff through the Provost Diversity Initiative; the provost’s communications with the community, including regular electronic and video messages; and the office’s website.
Milligan has been an advocate for academic technology needs and recently was instrumental in selecting Blackboard, a learning management software system, for the Danforth Campus.
Being a voice
She also has become an important link to the administration for academic support units that don’t report directly to a school, such as The Teaching Center, The Writing Center, the Gephardt Institute for Public Service, Student Records, ROTC, Science Outreach and the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics.
“Shelley is great at listening, talking through ideas and troubleshooting,” says Lenora J. Fisher, assistant director of the Danforth Center. “She is always interested in what is going on at the center and responsive to our requests, whether helping set up a template for budgets or explaining university procedures.
“It helps to have someone paying attention to us, who has our back and is speaking for us in the university administration. I’m endlessly thankful for her. She’s been a treasure and an amazing support.”
Milligan brings her voice to university issues often, particularly in her work with Macias’ university-wide diversity initiative.
Her dissertation for her doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania — the degree she started at the same time she joined the provost office — was the result of interviews with 13 women presidents of colleges and universities across the country.
A common thread for each of these women was that they could point to one person who urged them early in their academic careers to consider academic leadership.
“I didn’t ask them about that,” Milligan says, “it just came up in conversation and in some cases very powerfully: ‘Thirty years ago someone told me this, and I still remember to this day the fact that he’ — and usually it was always a he — ‘told me I should think about taking on more leadership roles.’
“It was great to be able to process my findings with Ed at a time when we were considering issues like this. I remember saying to him, ‘They all said this, so you’d better be telling people, women especially, when you see it, that you think they ought to pursue positions of leadership because you just don’t know what that means to someone.’ ”
Connecting to others
Another aspect of her life is her volunteer work with Young Life, a national youth ministry in which she has been a leader at Webster Groves High School for eight years.
She spends 10-15 hours a week with girls aged 14-18 years old, listening to them, counseling them, praying with them, attending their athletic events or performances, having them to her home, advising their parents — being involved in their lives.
“I think being a teenager is really hard these days,” says Milligan, who took 10 of the girls to summer camp in Minnesota the first week of August.
“Adults in general have sort of abandoned them because they listen to funny music and they’re always online and they Facebook and Twitter, but really teenagers are desperate to be known and to have adults in their life. I’m grateful that I’ve been able to find a way to do that.
“And I really hope that that’s the case here, too — that if I can connect to people and help them feel as valuable as I’ve been made to feel, then I’m being used well.”
Fast facts about Shelley Milligan
Grew up: Murrysville, Pa., a borough about 20 miles outside of Pittsburgh. Daughter of Ann, who holds a master’s degree in home economics, and W. H. Milligan III, PhD, DMD, a dentist for 24 years and now associate dean of clinical affairs at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Dental Medicine. One brother, Aaron.
Interests: Tennis, traveling, reading, Young Life volunteer leader, active member of Central Presbyterian Church
Awards: Washington and Lee’s Distinguished Young Alumni Award, 2006; Vanderbilt’s David Jones Award for Excellence in Institutional Advancement, 2002