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The 2022 Women of UD

Shannon Penn

Shannon Penn



As the Dean of Students and Registrar for the University of Dayton School of Law, Shannon Penn sensed rather quickly that her level of dedication was going to be tested at the onset of the pandemic. “Not that education is ever really a traditional 9-to-5 job, but for a majority of days there was an ending. There wasn’t an ending anymore. It was ongoing.” Because Penn knew she had to be there for students and faculty in a way that “wasn’t the way anymore,” she relied heavily on what she knew to be her inner strength to flip the school’s curriculum to online, full-time. With her goal clearly defined – continuing in the face of the pandemic to provide a quality education for her students – Penn set about facing the challenge. “Law school’s difficult already and having to do this online and really being there for our students as they had to transition to try to do this, well, I thought it took a lot and it was a lot on them, but I just made sure that I was available to them at all costs.” Her determination to be there for the Law School community meant that Penn was always on duty: “it was weekends, it was evenings. It was early in the morning, it was late into the days.” 

In addition to being constantly on call, Penn had to devise creative means to ensure the work of the school could continue uninterrupted. However, thinking outside the box was not as big a hurdle as facilitating the buy-in by students, faculty and other staff. “Things are very traditional and stringent in law school, and sometimes it’s really hard to work our way out of the box, but we had to do that. We were forced to do that. And it was uncomfortable for many.” Because of the intimacy of the Law School, which Penn describes as “somewhat siloed off from the rest of the community,” her students are accustomed to attending all of their classes in the same building, and they stay in that building all day. This place is where they study, eat, and socialize, and the natural result is a close-knit community with routine procedures and expectations. When the school was forced to move to online classes, students lost much of their connection with others. Penn worried a bit about their ability to deal with the new instructional mode, but more about how they would deal with the shock and associated mental health issues. Perhaps the most creative adaptation Penn devised was a virtual version of the Law School’s annual Barristers’ Ball. She intuited that the event’s success would be determined by the degree of student buy-in, so she worked hard with student leaders to find ways to generate interest. She calls it the Law School Prom, and although it was done online, “everybody still dressed up in their gowns and suits, but they did dinner there (at their remote location). We had a set menu, and everybody cooked with each other to still try to have our traditional event that we usually have, but in a different way.” Penn said such efforts tend to be hit or miss, but in this case “there was enough buy-in to make it a really memorable event.”

It is fitting that Penn devotes so much of herself to the well-being of her students, and to devising new ways to simulate normalcy. As a little kid, her grandmother gave her the nickname “Mother,” because her siblings listened to her or would come to her to resolve problems when their parents were at work. “When we were growing up, I was just responsible for them. Now I’m the person who has the keys to everyone’s house because I’m the person they’re going to call if something is going on and they need something. That’s kind of how I’ve always operated.”

Penn recognizes her responsive and responsible nature has served her well. “I’ve come up in the ranks here at the Law School, and I never really talk about it, but I am very proud about that.” She has worked elsewhere, but her achievements in the School of Law are particularly rewarding because “I came here as a kid and went through a lot to get my education, and there were times where I was going to two schools – going here and taking classes at Sinclair.” During this hectic part of her life, she says, her spouse “was and still is extremely supportive. No matter what, I know that when I come home, I have a place that is full of joy where I am safe, loved and uplifted.” Penn attended classes while working full-time in the Law School, and her hard work and adaptability paid off when a position was created for her. “I found that I was being rewarded for not giving up, always pushing, just like my mom and dad. And I’m so, so grateful that they put that in me because I don’t know how to quit.”

Penn’s refusal to quit in the face of challenges has paid off in big ways for students and faculty at the Law School, where acceptance of new ways or methods can be met with skepticism. She views this same tendency in the larger UD community to be a hurdle for the institution to move forward. “Resistance to change is when people say, ‘I want to go back to normal.’ There is no going back to the way it was. You may get some remnants of that, but you are now moving forward.” Penn knows progress cannot be stopped, and she is grateful to have the leadership qualities she knows will help not only the Law School but the larger community. “Let’s think of new things in order to get rid of the archaic. Rather than just doing it because it’s always been done that way, let’s go with working smarter, with being more efficient. And if something is much more helpful to who we serve, why wouldn’t we try it?”