Seven university benchmarks: People and circumstances

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Reflections often are luxuries of time and distance. As Southeast Missouri State University launches into another successful academic year, it might be appropriate to reflect on key people and circumstances over the past two decades that set a foundation for future success.

* Robert Foster, 13th president. Foster brought stability to the university at a critical time in its history and, at the same time, had a clear vision about how best to serve the region. That was best demonstrated when he saw a huge cavernous building donated by Harry L. Crisp not as what it was but what it could be. He then set about the task of transforming it into a first-class learning center. The Harry L. Crisp Bootheel Education Center stands as testimony to his vision, and it became a model for the development of other learning centers in the service area. Robert Foster was a strong advocate for access, opportunity and service to the region.

* Kala Stroup, 14th president. Stroup oversaw the transition of the university into its "moderately selective" status. During the process, she asked important questions such as why Southeast didn't have National Merit Finalists as part of its student mix and what was being done to attract more valedictorians and salutatorians to the university. She then stepped forward to provide the necessary encouragement and resources to accomplish academic and enrollment goals. In subsequent years, because of that effort, Southeast had a record of success to support its claim as being a "first choice university."

* Juan Crites, director of public services/publications. Crites served as director of admissions when the number of high school graduates had dropped precipitously. Competition for that limited pool of students was intense. She set about assembling a student recruitment team and, at the same time, developed the tools necessary for them to compete successfully. Dr. Debbie Below was part of that original team. Those efforts turned the enrollment decline around and stands as a source-point for a trend in enrollment growth which continues to this day.

* Donald Dickerson, former president of the board of regents. Dickerson believed in the potential of the River Campus and worked tirelessly and tenaciously to nurture it along. Often beset by seemingly insurmountable obstacles, he continued on. Many can recall the times he approached a podium on the grassy river bank and fervently described a clear vision of what that site could be. As students, faculty, staff and members of the community walk the marvelous River Campus this fall, it is well to remember the dedication and hard work of Dickerson, who was instrumental in helping to make it what it is today.

* John Hinni, former director of university studies. From the very beginning, Hinni firmly believed that critical thinking was the engine that drives student learning. He fashioned the university studies program around that fundamental principle, and it became a model that was replicated at colleges and universities around the country. Skeptics and "push-backs" notwithstanding, he never wavered. The Southeast university studies program became nationally known, and Hinni was its prime architect.

* Judy Wilferth, former chairwoman of the University Foundation. Wilferth led the University Foundation during its formative years from 1990 to 1992. She devoted considerable time, energy and expertise to make the foundation an effective arm of the university, recognizing that the foundation was key to the university's ability to maintain a competitive edge.

* Kenneth Dobbins, president of Southeast. Dobbins came to Southeast initially as vice president for finance and administration at a time when state appropriations for higher education were declining. He was faced with the responsibility of managing a budget during periods of financial austerity. His financial expertise was a perfect match to address the challenges of the time. As president, he is an effective steward of the public trust and continues "to grow" the university physically and academically.

At the heart of the university throughout this period have been the faculty who provided quality instruction and the staff who dedicated themselves to serving students.

The poet Archibald MacLeish said, "Those who wait for time to take them find within fulfilling time not what they hope but what they feared. The bold go toward their time. They make its meaning answer to the mind."

Many people came before to shape the university; many surely will follow. These went boldly toward their time to help shape the university into what it is today. People may be transitory, but the mark they make can be indelible and unmistakable.

Readers are encouraged to add to the list those who provided benchmarks in the evolution of Southeast Missouri State University.

Jim Biundo was assistant to the president at Southeast Missouri State University. He currently resides in Arizona, where he serves as the District 1 councilman for the city of Surprise.

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