‘I want to spend those in a different way:’ Provost looks on retirement as she winds down her time at WKU

WKU Interim Provost Cheryl Stevens plays with her dog Ruthie in an office suite in the Wetherby Administration Building. On June 30, Stevens will step down from the role of interim provost and will fully retire by the end of December.

Debra Murray

While she was dean, Cheryl Stevens would bring her rescue dog, a labra-doodle named Ruthie, to work with her. When she became provost, she was worried it would look bad for her to bring her dog to work, but students continued to come back to see Ruthie.

“She had been the shelter dog, and probably four or five years ago she came to Bowling Green to live with me,” she said. “I started taking her to Ogden College with me in the mornings just half a day, so she got used to coming into work with me.”

Stevens is currently acting provost and vice president of Academic Affairs. She recently announced that she will be retiring from her position at WKU at the end of this year.


She isn’t entirely sure of her retirement plans, but she hopes to continue working in her garden, visit her family and give back to the community in some way. She still plans to consult people and maintain her professional connections.

Stevens has been working at WKU since 2012 when she became the
dean of Ogden College of Science and Engineering. She was named provost and vice president of Academic Affairs in 2019 after Terry Ballman announced that she was stepping down from her position.

Prior to starting at WKU, Stevens served as chair of the department
of chemistry and associate dean for research at Xavier University in Louisiana. She served as chair for seven years.

“During that whole seven years it was the post-Katrina rebuild, which was really hard work but rewarding,” Stevens said.

Her enjoyment of chemistry helped influence her to apply for the dean of Ogden College.

“I liked academic administration, so I felt like I wanted to do a dean job, and WKU had advertised their dean position,” Stevens said. “I was just so excited to come to WKU, it’s a very different kind of institution but culturally it’s very similar.”

Stevens has also made a group of friends during her time at WKU, despite not knowing anyone prior to working here.

“When I first came here, I actually walked on this campus and didn’t know another person, not one other person,” Stevens said. “Over a couple of years, there was a group of women that sort of coalesced into a friend group. And I will keep in touch with them forever.”

One of her friends is Betsy Shoenfelt, a professor in the psychological sciences department. They met when Stevens became dean of Ogden College.

Shoenfelt said they are in the same book club, Girls Under the Influence of Literary Discussion, and are also both members of the President’s Club of South Central Kentucky.

“We have had a lot of good times,” Shoenfelt said. “Perhaps my favorite memory is when Cheryl and her husband, Ed, came to visit at my second home in North Carolina. My house is in the mountains where there are hiking trails with lots of creeks.”

Shoenfelt said it was raining most of their trip but that they decided to go out anyways.

“We decided to take a walk in the pouring rain,” she said. “We put on raincoats and ball caps and had a really good walk and talk – and the nature was beautiful.”

Shoenfelt said she and Stevens love music, and prior to COVID-19 would spend time going to local concerts or seeing Orchestra Kentucky.

“Dr. Stevens has shown strong, thoughtful and effective leadership to move WKU successfully through each of these challenges,” Shoenfelt said. “When one makes a decision to retire, they have to think in terms of what is best for them at that point in their life. WKU would be fortunate to have Dr. Stevens for a longer time, but this is the right time for her.”

Stevens said the WKU community and Bowling Green in general have always been supportive.

“I feel grateful for having the opportunity to come here,” Stevens said. “I really have enjoyed my time here. It’s an amazing institution, it’s big and unwieldy, but it always focuses on the student.”

Stevens plans to stay in Bowling Green during her retirement because of the life she has built here over the past nine years. Her children each live in different parts of the country so she is planning to visit them.

“My oldest son and his longtime girlfriend live in southern California near the coast,” Stevens said. “They are engineers working in the oil industry. My middle son is a geologist, he’s married with almost two children. They live in New Orleans. Then my youngest is in graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis in engineering. We’re a STEM family.”

Helen Sterk is another friend Stevens made while working at WKU. Sterk is head of the communication department, and she met Stevens eight years ago at a gender and women’s studies program held at the faculty house.

“We have a personal relationship that is founded on walking together every morning at 6 a.m.,” Sterk said. “We do that Monday through Friday. We’ve been doing that for at least eight years now. We have these great early morning conversations as we watch the sun come up.”

Sterk said Stevens had a clear professional relationship, while also maintaining a close personal friendship outside of work.

“She is a woman with clear and appropriate academic principles,” Sterk said. “I mean when she makes a decision you know why, she is consistent and smart. As a person, people should know she is an avid gardener. She loves gardening. She’s really transformed the yard of the house where she and her husband lived.”

Stevens will continue working on her passion for gardening once she is retired. She started gardening in the “deep south” of Louisiana, and when she moved to Bowling Green she remained faithful to her passion, even in the crazy Kentucky weather.

She has been transforming the garden in her yard with the help of Ruthie, and she learned how to tackle gardening throughout the winter. Gardening is one of many hobbies that Stevens plans to dedicate more time to once she is retired.

Stevens also said that she enjoys hiking and reading historical fiction, and she plans to continue doing all of those activities once she is retired.

“I used to say I was a good deep south gardener,” Stevens said. “When I moved to Bowling Green, it’s a little different because of the winter. We didn’t have that long growing season, but I’ve learned a lot about gardening.”

While Stevens’ plans for retirement are not completely planned out, she has a lot of plans for how she is wanting to spend her time.

“There are fewer days ahead of me than behind,” Stevens said. “I want to spend those in a different way. I want to go do a ton of different things, and I think that’s okay.”

Debra Murray can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @debramurrayy