As a young immigrant from Scotland, Mary Spilde came to the United States in search of opportunity. She found herself in Eugene with a law degree from Edinburgh, Scotland, and took the first job she could get — as a checker at K-Mart.
“I came with $1,900, two suitcases and an education. It was the education that propelled me.”
With this she was able to settle in, and eventually Spilde would find herself residing in Lane’s presidential office. At the end of June, 2017, she will retire and open up that office for the next person to take the presidency.
For almost 17 years Mary Spilde has led Lane through some of the most tumultuous times in recent memory. From 9/11, to the economic collapse of 2008, to the UCC shooting, Spilde has helped move Lane forward. As Spilde goes into her final year as president of Lane, she looks back on her time as president and her future as a new grandmother.
The birth of her grandchild was a factor in her decision to retire, but Spilde said it was ultimately just time for her to move on. Many people may recognize her, but most may not know what her story is or how she came to occupy this position.
After beginning her role as president in 2001, Spilde found that there was no easy start to her new position. One of the first things that Spilde did as president was cut funding for programs and jobs, due to a weak economy following 9/11.
“It was February 22, 2002, and I went around and told 122 people that they weren’t going to have jobs anymore. That was one of the most humbling experiences I’ve had at Lane.”
As a bookend to her presidency, Spilde is faced with cutting programs once again. Recently, Lane’s Board of Education decided not to raise tuition, resulting in the potential need for budget cuts to some programs. Spilde wishes the process was easier for everyone, but understands the reality of her role.
“You want to do everything and you want to support every faculty member and every staff member, and you want to provide jobs for everybody,” Spilde said. “Coming to terms with the fact that it’s just not possible is tough.”
Prior to the difficult decision making the presidency requires, Spilde worked less demanding jobs. After working for K-Mart as a checker, Spilde got to put her law degree to good use, and decided to apply for a job in higher education. Spilde eventually got hired at Linn-Benton Community College in 1980, where she worked for 15 years, moving from teaching to administration.
“That was the start of a love-affair with community colleges,” Spilde said. “As soon as I got there I thought ‘Okay, this is where I’m going to do my work.’ I feel blessed that I found community colleges.”
Spilde held many different positions during her tenure at Linn-Benton, which qualified her for a position as Vice President of Instruction at Lane in 1995.
After six years at Lane, the presidency opened up and Spilde applied. Standing beside her husband and two kids, Spilde became the first female president in Lane’s history in 2001 with a unanimous vote by the Board of Education. According to a statement by Joan Aschim, Lane’s public information officer, the crowded board room was filled with “cheers and applause.”
Spilde recalled those days as exciting and believed she would be able to move Lane forward in the coming years. After reminiscing about her first days as president, Spilde is able to look back now and see how far the college has come, and and how far it still needs to go.
“There is still a lot of sexism and misogyny that occurs in the world and, sadly, still at Lane,” Spidle said. “It’s 2016 and we need to be beyond that for all groups. When I started I was the only one [female president].”
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, most college presidents have been male. In a national survey, the CHE tracked women assuming the presidential role of a college from 2006-2011, and found an increase from 23 to 26 percent.
After being at the helm of Lane for almost two decades, Spilde looked back on her biggest regret — a lack of funding.
“It affects everything,” Spilde said. “Oregon is 46th in the nation for the funding of community college, and that is something I regret we haven’t made more progress on.”
Oregon has seen a 51 percent decline for student funding from 2000 to 2014, with funding being around $4,134 per student.
Spilde recognizes the need for more school funding, and as president, her job entails collecting donations. Wendy Jett, Lane Foundation Director, said Spilde helps build strong relationships with donors to secure funds for scholarship money.
“She is very involved with the Foundation,” Jett said. “People just really like her and like her work at Lane. She just has a wonderful relationship with all of them [donors].”
During her final year at Lane, Spilde hopes to raise more scholarship and bond money. Spilde also plans to put more effort into furthering the college’s Climate Action Plan by promoting alternatives to driving and possible talks of expansion of an Emx route to Lane.
“I have a lot of work to do and I need to stay focused,” Spilde said. “I am all in for the next year.”
Although Spilde is invested in the rest of her future at Lane, she is taking time now to enjoy her family and her granddaughter. Spilde is looking forward to retirement after her tenure, while also remaining an active member of the community.
“I am very excited. I will have more time for my friends. I have friends all over the world so I will have the time to hang out with them,” Spilde said. “I will stay connected to community colleges and my colleagues there. I will travel and spend time with my family. And I am going to take classes because I am going to stay in this community. It’s going to be cool.”