Goodbye Peggy

Heather Mangan

Heather Mangan

SDSU’s only female president set to leave legacy of winning ways and university growth.

When Robert Wagner left the SDSU presidency nine years ago, he sent Peggy Miller a congratulatory card as she took control of the state’s largest university. In that note, he wrote a message that she would use as motivation throughout her term as president.

“You will find it is better than it really is but it doesn’t know it,” the note read.

At age 60, armed with seemingly endless energy and known for the “southern” twang in her accent, she marched onto campus with a commitment to show SDSU its full potential. It wasn’t long before the Kentucky native fell in love with SDSU.

“This has been such a special university,” she says.

For nine years, she has led SDSU through good times and bad, but she decided it’s time to move on. Come Jan.1, David Chicoine, SDSU alum and current vice president for technology and economic development at the University of Illinois, will be the new face of SDSU, while Miller transitions into the retired life. Her tenure is marked by the university’s move to Division I, research expansion and creation of the Jackrabbit Guarantee scholarship. Under her leadership, SDSU grew with record enrollment numbers, building updates and national undergraduate and research distinctions.

“She has been good for SDSU and a lot of that is due to her thinking style and her willingness to work on things,” says Ryan Brunner, an agriculture engineering senior.

The successes she’s experienced and the challenge she gets from leading SDSU will be hard to leave. The transition won’t be easy; it’s the right time, she says. She could have worked longer, but with her 70th birthday approaching, it seems appropriate.

“I think it will be difficult for her in the beginning because she has been president so long, but what I think she’ll do is find other things to take up the energy,” says her husband Bob.

Miller, 69, doesn’t plan on settling for a traditional retirement.

“I wouldn’t be happy sitting at the seashore painting my fingernails,” she says.

She has talked about joining the Peace Corps, but Bob isn’t as eager. Instead, she plans to spend a few months enjoying the Florida sunshine. Those few months away from the university will allow the new president to step into office and make an easy transition, she says.

After the trip, she and Bob will settle into their Volga home. She has no real plans, but figures she’ll volunteer for fundraisers, maybe even a political campaign. And there’s always work to be done at SDSU, she says.

“I’ll be out fundraising for scholarships to SDSU ’til the day I die,” Miller says. “There are so many things that need to be done, that need help, but the thing I want to help is SDSU.”

From the time Miller came on campus for constituent interviews, Marysz Rames, vice president of Student Affairs, knew she was a right fit for SDSU. Despite the fact she didn’t have any experience at a land-grant university, Miller’s energy and passion was evident.

“She just lit up the room when she walked in,” she says. “I remember turning to a colleague and saying ‘wow.'”

Miller’s presidency was driven by respect and gratitude for students– a type of leadership that doesn’t exist at many large universities, Rames says.

“She never lost her passion in making sure everything we did was for the students,” Rames said.

And students are her favorite part of the job-her motivation, her inspiration, her rejuvenation.

“I can go into the student union, and in 20 minutes, be whole again,” she says.

Miller had an effort to be a part of student’ lives, Brunner says. She went to football games, band concerts and student meetings, and would take the time to talk and listen to students. Many students adore the president and will be sad to see her go, Brunner says.

“Students have a lot more say and input due to the fact she has let students be involved in their educations,” says the former Students’ Association president.

Mariah Pavlicek, a dietetics senior, says Miller was a professional, yet student-oriented, leader.

“I know she is involved with students (and) that is what I like to see from a president – someone who isn’t in the office all day,” she says.

Despite the praise she’s received from many, Miller hasn’t been immune to criticism. She was largely criticized for the Division-I move, as well as other decisions.

Jen Creed, a park and rec senior, said the only time she heard students criticizes Miller is when the state used $450,000 in student fee dollars to renovate Woodbine Cottage.

“People were really mad about her house,” she says.

Although Miller has faced a lot of criticism, she has become a better leader because of it, Brunner says.

“Even though someone disagrees, they have to have a lot of respect for the progress she has taken,” he says. “She took all that heat and that criticism, yet she persevered.”

Although they have been on opposite sides of issues at times, University of South Dakota President Jim Abbott has enjoyed getting to know Miller throughout their time leading the rival universities. Miller was always good for a few jokes during a boring meeting, he said.

“Clearly, she had done a good job. It would be hard to look at SDSU’s record and say otherwise,” Abbott said.

Although Miller has led SDSU to great opportunities, it has done the same for her. After all, SDSU led her to her husband. They met while working at the SDSU Foundation. He was an involved alumnus when he met Miller, who had been divorced for several years when she took office. Soon, business dinners turned into dates, then Bob proposed in Woodbine Cottage’s garden. After five years together, SDSU continues to play a role in their marriage.

“The university is just as important to me as it is to him,” she says.

She admits she is nervous to leave. She sees herself like a father of the bride, wondering, “Will you love her as much as I do?”

But Miller believes that if any can love SDSU like her, it is Chicoine.

As she prepares to leave, she reflects on how the university has changed. She is reminded of the words Wagner left her, and hopes the new leader will also use them as a guide.

“If I leave a legacy, I hope that it is that never again will the university believe it can’t do something.”

#1.883921:1608173527.jpg:ice_sculpture.jpg:President Peggy Gordon Miller and her husband Bob have been married for five years. Bob, a SDSU alum, proposed to Miller in the Woodbine garden.:Eric Landwehr/University Relations