SHEEO Announces Excellence Awards Recipients

Association recognizes leadership, dedication, and innovation in state higher education policy and administration.

Boston, MA – The State Higher Education Executive Officers Association has announced the organization’s 2022 SHEEO Excellence Awards recipients. The awards recognize the leadership, dedication, and innovation of exceptional SHEEOs, agency staff, and agencies at a time when state postsecondary policy is increasingly linked to student success and, in turn, states’ economic and social prosperity.

  • The Exceptional Leader Award recipient is Peter Blake, director of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.
  • The Exceptional Agency Award recipients are the Minnesota Office of Higher Education and Minnesota State.
  • The David L. Wright Memorial Award recipient is Clantha McCurdy, senior deputy commissioner, access and student financial assistance for the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education.

Reflecting on the SHEEO Excellence Awards, Dr. Robert Anderson, president of SHEEO, said: “SHEEO is so pleased to be able to celebrate and acknowledge the hard work of all of our state higher education executive officers, their agencies, and agency staff members. The efforts of these individuals and agencies help address the needs of students and promote equitable educational outcomes. Their hard work and commitment should be commended. It is our honor to recognize the winners of this year’s SHEEO Excellence Awards.”

Exceptional Leader Award

The Exceptional Leader Award is presented to a current state higher education executive officer from a member agency who has shown exceptional leadership, a commitment to higher education, a contribution to the greater good, and service to the SHEEO Association within the last year.

This year’s recipient of the Exceptional Leader Award, Peter Blake, is the director of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. Blake has been involved in higher ed—and in service to Virginia—for most of his adult life. His career spans time in both the executive and legislative branches, having served as an associate director at SCHEV; a fiscal analyst (higher ed focus) for the House Appropriations Committee; the deputy secretary of education (for higher education), the secretary of education under Gov. Mark Warner; and the vice chancellor of workforce development services for the Virginia Community College System, before returning to SCHEV as interim agency director and being selected SCHEV director in 2012.

During Blake’s tenure as SCHEV director, the Council and its staff have produced two statewide strategic plans to place Virginia as the best state for education by 2030. As important, Blake led efforts to require that public institutions’ strategic plans and six-year operating plans reflect the goals of the state plans. Also, during Blake’s directorship of SCHEV, Amazon selected Virginia for its second headquarters, based significantly on the strength of higher education and talent in the commonwealth. And, in Virginia’s past two biennial budgets, appropriations for higher education have set new records. 

Blake’s success is attributed mainly to his leadership style. His colleagues describe him as an expert in navigating constituencies and balancing needs and expectations through a remarkable ability to build and maintain trust. According to Sen. Janet Howell, chair of the Virginia Senate’s Finance and Appropriations Committee and a member of its Education and Health Committee, who has interacted with Blake for decades, “Peter Blake is a trusted advocate for higher education and has been invaluable in providing advice to the legislature as the Director of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. He is an expert in crafting guidance that considers the competing needs of various stakeholders, including state level policymakers, higher education institutions, and students and parents. I am delighted to hear that he is being recognized as a recipient of the SHEEO Exceptional Leader Award and congratulate him on this extraordinary honor.”

Ken Ampy, chair of the SCHEV Council, said, “Peter Blake has had a distinguished career in higher education that is not rivaled by many. He has served Virginia tirelessly for years, ensuring that our future citizens, entrepreneurs, and leaders have the quality of and access to the best education the Commonwealth has to offer. The SCHEV Council is honored to have served beside him. We proudly join SHEEO in recognizing Mr. Blake as recipient of the Exceptional Leader Award. Bravo Peter, well deserved.”

Exceptional Agency Award

The Exceptional Agency Award is presented to a member agency whose innovative actions, policies, or practices advanced student success in their state; which displayed exceptional governance practices; overcame exceptional challenges; or displayed other meritorious attributes within the last year. SHEEO has jointly selected the Minnesota Office of Higher Education and Minnesota State this year.

The Minnesota Office of Higher Education (OHE) and Minnesota State’s strong partnership is critical in expanding access to postsecondary education for Minnesotans and strengthening the workforce pipeline. Minnesota State often takes a lead role in implementing new grant programs that break down financial barriers for students. Recent successful partnerships include the Next Generation Nursing Assistant initiative and the Minnesota Future Together grants, programs made possible by an investment of American Recovery Plan funds.

For the Next Generation Nursing Assistant initiative, OHE sought to address staffing shortages in the health care field and meet a goal set by Governor Tim Walz to recruit and train 1,000 new nursing assistants. After securing a $3.5 million investment in January 2022, Minnesota State took on the process of setting up training programs, and within three months, 1,300 Minnesotans were recruited and trained as nursing assistants. Prior to this initiative, Minnesota State had stepped up to train 400 National Guard members as nursing assistants. These National Guard members were deployed throughout the state to serve in veterans’ homes and long-term care facilities. The Next Generation Nursing Assistant initiative has become a new model for how the state can address staffing shortages in high-need career areas.

The Minnesota Future Together grants are a two-year grant program that covers the cost of tuition and fees for students pursuing a credential in high-need careers such as education, business, industry and technology, health care, STEM, and public service. Minnesota State partnered closely on the initial roll out of the grant, devoting countless hours of staff time and resources to promoting the grant and identifying eligible students. As a result, 1,485 Minnesota State students saw the full cost of their tuition covered in the spring 2022 semester.

These examples are two of the many ways the partnership between OHE and Minnesota State is benefiting Minnesotans and directly impacting the state’s educational attainment goal of having 70% of Minnesotans, ages 25-44, complete a credential by 2025.

“I am honored that the work we do to offer equitable access to higher education for all Minnesotans while serving as the state’s workforce engine has received this distinction from SHEEO,” said Chancellor Devinder Malhotra. “The guidance, counsel, and partnership we receive from OHE and Commissioner Olson help us increase the effectiveness and impact of our work. On behalf of the 14,000 employees of Minnesota State, thank you for this honor.”      

“I appreciate the close working partnership OHE has with Minnesota State,” Commissioner Dennis Olson said. “This recognition is the result of critical investments in higher education made under Governor Tim Walz, as well as the incredible leadership of Chancellor Malhotra at Minnesota State. Our office can always rely on Minnesota State to step up at a moment’s notice to help spearhead new initiatives and grant programs. Together, we are working to support the whole student, from providing transportation and housing assistance to mental health supports to grants and scholarships that make it possible for anyone to enroll in postsecondary education. To have this work, and specifically, our partnership, honored in this way is very humbling. Thank you for this recognition.”

“Both the Office of Higher Education and Minnesota State are incredible assets to our state,” Governor Tim Walz said. “From the state grant to innovative grant programs, OHE’s work is breaking down financial barriers while also building the workforce pipeline necessary for Minnesota to thrive. Minnesota State is a vital partner in this work, offering a variety of credentials throughout the state. I am grateful to Commissioner Olson and Chancellor Malhotra for their leadership, and I look forward to collaborating with them to support the next generation of Minnesota’s workforce.”

David L. Wright Memorial Award

The David L. Wright Memorial Award is named in honor of the late David Wright, an esteemed colleague and leader in state higher education who served in the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, and the Florida Governing Board. This award recognizes a current SHEEO agency staff member from a member agency who embodies the exceptional commitment, work ethic, and ethical practices of David Wright and made outstanding contributions to their agency.

Dr. Clantha McCurdy, this year’s David L. Wright Memorial Award recipient, began her career in public service at the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education 29 years ago. Over her long career, she has held several positions spanning from the director of student financial assistance, vice chancellor for student financial aid, and currently, senior deputy commissioner, access and student financial assistance. Prior to her time in Massachusetts, Dr. McCurdy served as the director of financial aid with the Kansas Board of Regents.

In managing the Massachusetts Office of Student Financial Assistance, Dr. McCurdy serves as the staff contact with the Executive Office of Education and the Board of Higher Education on financial aid policy and related issues. It is also noteworthy that she is the primary liaison/representative for the Board of Higher Education and the Department of Higher Education on state, regional and national committees, initiatives, and projects related to financial aid policy. Dr. McCurdy’s work is not limited to student financial aid issues. The recent change in her title to senior deputy commissioner, access and student financial assistance illustrates her evolving role in the MA DHE. She now spearheads several access and diversity initiatives. Most noteworthy is that she is the lead staff liaison to the development of a comprehensive Student Support Services effort.

One example demonstrating her initiative and understanding in the public policy arena is that amid the COVID-19 pandemic, when enrollments declined, job loss grew among students, and MA higher education institutions were fundamentally disrupted, Dr. McCurdy worked with state and federal agencies to allow college students to be beneficiaries of the federal SNAP program (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). She packaged a letter to students that included information on financial assistance, FAFSA completion, and participation in SNAP and sent it out to over 90,000 students in Massachusetts. It turned out to be a significant initiative benefitting students during difficult times.

Carlos Santiago, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education and Dr. McCurdy’s nominator, shared, “I could not complete this letter without highlighting Dr. McCurdy’s characteristics of empathy, unwavering support for students, and exceptional leadership over her large staff. The DHE is fortunate to have such a talented member of our administration with experience garnered through her many years of tenure. She is very deserving of the 2022 David L. Wright Award.”

Ebony Marsala, president of the Massachusetts Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (MASFAA), shared, “Clantha is so passionate in her desire to get financial aid funds in the hands of students that need it. She is dedicated to a life of service and enthusiastic about her work. Clantha is a true living legend of financial aid. Her leadership and passion precede her throughout Massachusetts, the community, and beyond.”


The State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO) serves the chief executives of statewide governing, policy, and coordinating boards of postsecondary education and their staffs. Founded in 1954, SHEEO promotes an environment that values higher education and its role in ensuring the equitable education of all Americans, regardless of race/ethnicity, gender, or socioeconomic factors. Together with its members, SHEEO aims to achieve this vision by equipping state higher education executive officers and their staffs with the tools to effectively advance the value of higher education, promoting public policies and academic practices that enable all Americans to achieve success in the 21st century, and serving as an advocate for state higher education leadership. For more information, visit