Associate Vice President Knight to leave after seven years of building CMU's brand
Knight and her husband plan to launch an executive communications firm in Mid-Michigan
Sherry Knight has spent the last seven years helping Central Michigan University discover what makes it unique. Now that the university's associate vice president of University Communications is confident faculty, staff, students and alumni know what's special about CMU, she is ready to move on.
On May 8, Knight announced that she will step down from her position, effective June 30. She and her husband Jim, a journalism faculty member, plan to open an executive communications firm in Mid-Michigan.
"The time is just right," she said. "The (communications) team is in great shape, the three directors are great. The time was just right to go ahead and make that move."
Heather Smith, the university's director of communications, was appointed by President Bob Davies to run the marketing and communications team in the interim.
"Sherry is an outstanding leader and mentor," Smith said. "She truly cares about her team — personally and professionally — and her passion for CMU has helped her excel in this position and move the university forward."
Davies plans to put together a search committee and appoint a national search firm to find Knight's replacement.
When Knight came to CMU seven years ago, she had her work cut out for her. She was brought in by former President George Ross to serve as the interim associate vice president of communications after her predecessor, Renee Walker, resigned in May 2012. In November 2012, Ross officially appointed her to her current position.
"When I got here, they had gone a decade without stable leadership in the (communications) department," Knight said. She said there wasn't a vision or mission for the department at the time.
She spent a significant amount of time working on branding and marketing for the university. When Knight arrived, she said admissions and college materials did not reflect CMU at all. She said most of the materials, as well as the website, were white with a variety of colors like blue, teal, orange and red.
"You would not know by looking at our materials that our colors were maroon and gold," she said. "Maroon and gold are powerful colors. Not many universities have them."
Also at the time, the "action C" that CMU is known for was only used by athletics. The College of Medicine, which just opened that year, wanted to put the action C on students' white coats, so Knight spoke with the athletic director and got permission to use the action C for all of CMU's branded materials.
She also took advantage of technology by increasing CMU's social media presence and engaging in digital marketing to reach potential students.
Knight was part of the team that launched the "Put Your Stamp on the World" campaign in spring 2014. Through market research, administrators learned that it wasn't effective to brand CMU as one of the nation's 100 largest universities, but to instead focus on CMU's strong sense of community and the ability for every single person at the university - students, faculty and alumni - to make a difference in the world.
In 1986, Knight received a journalism degree from Central Michigan University. She is a former editor-in-chief of Central Michigan Life. In 2015 she was inducted into the CMU Journalism Hall of Fame for her work in journalism and executive communications.
As an alumna, Knight is proud to see that the experience she had at CMU was similar to the experience students have today. When she came back to the university as an administrator, she learned that the journalism faculty's attentiveness to students is common in many other departments. She has seen it firsthand with her daughter, Lauren, who is entering her senior year in the neuroscience program.
When Lauren was a high school senior, she dual-enrolled in classes at CMU and Mount Pleasant High School. After reaching out to a neuroscience faculty member, she was allowed to work in his lab with undergraduate and graduate students.
"To see that commitment to her is remarkable," Knight said. "That's so CMU."
One of the biggest challenges Knight faced as the head of the communications team was the March 2, 2018, residence hall shooting. Not only was it difficult to field calls from media outlets, worried parents and law enforcement, but for Knight, it was hard to see what was happening at her alma mater.
"I own CMU so personally," she said. "That image of seeing that nobody was outdoors and police vehicles everywhere will be seared in my brain forever."
Looking back now, Knight said she is extremely proud of how her communications team handled the incident. After researching how other universities handled similar crises, her team was surprised by the lack of criticism the university received.
"I was kind of speechless when I read social media and saw alumni say, 'I've never been so proud of my university,'" she said. She was proud to see that in a tragedy, the CMU community really did come together.
Knight and her husband plan to stay in Mount Pleasant and continue to be involved with their alma mater. They plan to attend the 100-year celebration of CM Life on Nov. 16 at the Soaring Eagle Casino and Conference Center. Knight said she is often asked to speak in classes about crisis communication, and Jim wants to continue teaching in the journalism department.
Now that she is confident everyone at CMU understands its brand, she is ready to leave.
"From my first meeting with Sherry, I was impressed with her depth of insight and expertise," Davies said. "She is a talented alumna who has made enormous contributions to CMU and whose influence, in setting the right voice and tone, will have lasting impact. The clients of her new firm will find tremendous value in her work."