Autumn Tooms Cyprès thought she was done climbing. She was the associate provost for lifelong learning at the University of Alabama. Before that, she served as dean of the largest and most comprehensive school of education in Alabama. And before that she’d worked with public schools for 13 years, first as a biology and chemistry teacher, then as a principal.
Over her career, she’d scaled the ladder and launched groundbreaking initiatives across academia, creating transdisciplinary programs; promoting health and wellness; increasing national accreditations, brand recognition and partnerships; elevating her institution’s national profile and increasing student enrollment. She had followed her passion for helping underserved communities (especially those in Appalachia) and for being a scholar of educational leadership, publishing books, research articles and teaching courses.
So, when she was finally named associate provost at Alabama, she figured she would settle in and enjoy her new role. “I thought I wouldn’t leave Alabama. I thought that was my happy-ever-after job,” she said.
Then, a friend of hers called. “George Peterson, who was, at the time, founding dean of the Clemson University College of Education, told me he’d nominated me for the position of founding dean of the new College of Applied Human Sciences at West Virginia University.” At first, she protested. “This was going to be a national search. A huge competition — like “America’s Got Talent.” I told him I can’t do it.” She’d already done the climb, traveled the country, followed that mountain path to its peak. “I don’t have any more moves in me, man,” she’d said. But he wouldn’t take no for an answer. “He said, ‘Autumn, you could really make a difference here. He told me this was my happily-ever-after job.’”
Those words resonated. Cyprès was born into a family of climbers. She grew up on a ranch in Arizona. Her father, a military man, served Native American communities in the region where he helped set up medical clinics near reservations. Both her parents instilled in her the importance of making an impact on the world. “They said, if you go into education, you need to look at it the way the military does. You don’t just serve the school; you serve the profession. You're not just going to be a teacher. You want to be a person that makes the world a better place.”
But the deciding factor was her husband. He told her to go and show the world what she was made of. “He’s French. He calls me a force of nature, which, in French, roughly translates to ‘a beast of nature.’” She laughs. “When your husband looks at you like that, and all of a sudden, you’re in a Marvel superhero movie, you gotta throw down. So, I gave it everything I had.”
Cyprès threw herself into the process, putting together an application package, interviewing, being named a finalist and flying to Morgantown. On campus, she learned more about the new College of Applied Human Sciences and the merger of two beloved schools at WVU — formerly the College of Education and Human Services and the College of Physical Activity and Sports Sciences — part of an effort to increase the University’s competitive advantage and provide students with the best experience and resources possible. She was also thrilled to meet President E. Gordon Gee, one of her leadership idols. Cyprès flew home feeling good, both about her performance in the competition and about a future in West Virginia. “But then you have to wait. It's awful. It's like waiting for somebody you have a crush on to call you,” she said.
When the call finally came, she was elated. But the position of founding dean was unlike anything she’d ever encountered. She’d have to give it everything she had.“Founding deans are like the rear admiral of the fleet. They're very rare. I never imagined I’d have this opportunity.”
Cyprès leaned into her research on leadership and her experience in other institutions and began her own version of a listening tour, or, as she calls it, “a shut up and listen tour,” sitting down with every person who works in the two buildings comprising her new college and letting them teach her. And she’s already learned more than she imagined.
“I’ve learned our units do things differently, but we have shared values. We all understand that our job — whether we are a support staff, secretary, janitor, professor or dean — our job is to make sure we create a positive, uplifting, innovative learning environment that is inspirational and transformative. We are uniquely positioned with our land-grant mission. We're not sitting up here being professors in an ivory tower, thinking professor things, being smart. What we’re doing is thinking about how to make the world better. How to support students who’ve been on Zoom forever, who are exhausted. How do we increase access, a sense of community for students and employees?”
From day one, Cyprès has loaded up her plate with all that and more. But one of her first tasks? Switching up her look to represent her new college and life as a Mountaineer. “The uniform that I have worn for 30 years of my career is a dress, blazer and a pair of three-inch, chunk Mark Fisher heels with a pointed toe. But when I got here, one of the things I started realizing when I interviewed is: we’re in a whole new era with COVID. I started thinking about how we see powerful, beautiful women.” And as the leader of a college full of passionate athletes, coaches and health and wellness professionals, she knew she needed to represent herself differently. She found inspiration in a WVU employee she’d met during the interview process. “She had on tennis shoes with a suit.” So, she asked her about it. “She said, ‘this is a place where we’re focused on getting the work done and being the uniqueness of who we are.’”
It was a lightbulb moment. “There’s no reason I can’t wear shoes that honor the school I serve. We produce more athletes and more coaches than anybody else in this University. And I work in two buildings with a quarter mile walk in between.” With the advice of a friend and self-described sneakerhead and the help of a WVU student working at Finish Line, Cyprès dove feet-first into the world of tennis shoes, beginning what is quickly becoming an impressive collection (including a pair of custom WVU Nike “drips”).
But no matter what shoes she shows up for work in, Cyprès doesn’t back down from a challenge. In fact, she’s made a career out of scaling new heights. For her, leadership is more than just a word, it’s the way she’s shaped her life. “My father taught me very early on that there was a fantasy of leadership and then the reality of practice,” she said. “Leadership, service, education — it’s a practice like law or medicine or yoga. You have to practice it.”