Clarksville, TN – On a sunny, humid morning in early August, Dannelle Whiteside stepped inside the Browning Administration Building and paused in the quiet, empty lobby.
The floor in front of her was decorated with a large Austin Peay State University (APSU) seal, and plaques hung on the wood-paneled walls, honoring some of the 93-year-old school’s legendary faculty and staff.
For the last three years, Whiteside often passed through this entrance without much thought, turning right and making her way briskly down a dim hallway to her office as vice president for legal affairs. But on this morning – August 10th – she entered the double doors on the left, leading to the Office of the President.
“That morning, it felt weighty entering that office,” she said. “It felt like everything was now on my shoulders.”
Three days earlier, Dr. Alisa White ended her six-year tenure as Austin Peay State University’s 10th president to become the next president of Sam Houston State University in Texas. The APSU Board of Trustees quickly named Whiteside as Austin Peay State University’s interim president. It was a historic decision because once she stepped through the doors inside Browning that Monday, she became the institution’s first Black president.
“You have people sending emails saying, ‘I never thought a Black person would be in this position. I’m so proud of you,’” Whiteside said. “That’s a lot of weight. You’re the first, but you don’t want to be the last. And you have the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic, and you have to get everybody through this challenge.”
Whiteside took over Austin Peay State University’s leadership at one of the most challenging moments in the University’s nine decades. Earlier in the spring, the pandemic caused Austin Peay State University to move fully online, and with classes set to begin in two weeks, she had to make sure students, faculty and staff not only remained safe but continued to thrive within the school’s physical and virtual educational environments.
“People have said, ‘You must be crazy,’ but I’ve never backed down from anything,” she said. “And when you have an extreme challenge, you come out better than before. The way we’ve been able to innovate and come up with creative solutions to problems, we’ll use those solutions for years to come.”
In her new office, Whiteside has a small marquee with the words “You Got This” glowing as a constant reminder. There are challenges, but she’s spent most of her life preparing for this moment.
‘Education has always been a calling for me’
Whiteside first arrived at Austin Peay in 2017, and the school grounds immediately felt like home. That’s because the Nashville-native had spent most of her childhood growing up on college campuses. Her father, the late Dr. David L. Walker, served as music professor and as dean of the School of Graduate Studies and Research at Tennessee State University. He was later named assistant vice chancellor for academic affairs at the Tennessee Board of Regents.
“My brother and I grew up in academia. It was fun,” she said. “I remember running around the music building (at TSU) when I was a kid or watching the band practice.”
She must have made an impression because, at the age of 6, Whiteside was invited to sing at a TSU halftime show, with the school’s famous marching band backing her up. She agreed to sing Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” in exchange for an Oopsie Daisy Crawling Baby Doll.
While standing on the field, Whiteside realized the music bounced off the stands and came back at her, and the resulting echo made her unsure of when to sing.
“It almost tripped me up, but my dad stood on the sidelines and said, ‘Watch me,’” Whiteside recalled. “He coached me through the whole thing.”
When she visited her grandparents in Arkansas, Whiteside again found herself surrounded by marching band music and academic buildings. Before her mother, Deborah, worked as the dietician for the Metro Nashville School System, she attended college at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. That’s where she met David Walker.
“They got their undergrad degrees there, and once they got married and had kids, we’d go back and forth for homecomings every year,” Whiteside said. “Education has always been a calling for me. When I was 8, I said I wanted to be a professor.”
The 8-year-old was so used to academia that she even asked relatives and her parents’ friends, who were faculty members at different schools, if they had tenure.
‘It really felt like a family’
As Whiteside moved through high school, she discovered she had a talent for listening and communicating with people. She thought she might become a school psychologist, and when she enrolled at her parent’s alma mater, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, she found herself sitting in a class about children with special needs.
“That’s when I understood what role the law plays in education,” she said. “Then I just started looking down the path of going to law school.”
During her senior year, she served as president of the school’s Student Government Association, and after graduating in the spring of 2006, Whiteside enrolled in law school at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. That’s where her interest in education and the law merged, with her taking class in higher education policy and education law.
After receiving her Juris Doctorate, with honors, Whiteside went on to hold several high profile legal positions, including general attorney for the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, general counsel for the Tennessee State Board of Education and district policy advisor for Metro Nashville Public Schools.
“I’ve worked in education in K-12, higher ed, local, state and federal,” she said.
Then, in 2017, she joined Austin Peay State University – first as general counsel and then later as vice president for legal affairs.
Three years later, she’s now Austin Peay State University’s interim president, and while guiding the school through this pandemic, she’s working to ensure the University remains focused on the future.
“I spent the last year researching artificial intelligence and how that’s going to impact our processes, and I’ve looked at the percentage of jobs that won’t exist anymore,” she said. “We have to be the university preparing our students for that future. We have to be the university of the future.”