Ken Dobbins' vision: Access, culture and growth

Sunday, February 26, 2012
Southeast Missouri State University president Dr. Ken Dobbins stands in front of the River Campus in Cape Girardeau. (Laura Simon)

Dr. Kenneth Dobbins gets goosebumps, he said, when he thinks about graduation ceremonies at Southeast Missouri State University.

The ceremonies are his favorite of all university events. He thinks about how the degrees conferred upon hundreds each semester are going to change their lives -- and the lives of those students' children, and their children, he said.

A third of all students earning degrees from the university are first-generation graduates, Dobbins said. And he can relate.

"Maybe not many people know this about me, but I am a first-generation college graduate. My parents were wonderful people, but they did not attend college," he said. "I think that to think about what education can do for you, that's so important."

A college degree can't be taken away once a student has earned it, he said. And the more those students succeed, he believes, the more likely their children, Southeast Missouri and the surrounding areas will succeed.

Dobbins celebrated his 20th year with the university in 2011. He became its president in 1999, following roles as Vice President of Administration and Finance from 1991 to 1993 and Executive Vice President from 1993 until his appointment. He and his wife, Jeanine Larsen Dobbins, founder and director emeritus of the Missouri Statewide Early Literacy Intervention Program, have now lived in Cape Girardeau longer than anywhere else.

He said he's spent his time as president so far fulfilling a mission of the university, which is to change Southeast Missouri, making it a better place to live through educational access, culture and economic growth.

Growth defines Dobbins' tenure as president. The student population rose from around 7,900 in 1994 to over 11,500 in the fall of 2011. More than $300 million in capital building expenditures have so far been completed or are underway.

Projects include major expansions like the Seabaugh Polytechnic Building, the River Campus, new residence halls and a multi-phase renovation project for many campus buildings. More projects are beginning, including a third new residence hall on campus in less than 10 years. Still more develop each semester like Dobbins' idea for a multi-story hotel near the River Campus that will also house students, faculty offices and more performance space, or a Greek Village housing complex near the main campus.

Dobbins said partnerships that prompted the creation of projects like the River Campus are unprecedented. The River Campus required collaboration on planning and funding between Cape Girardeau, the university foundation and the state. It was a long road to the River Campus for Dobbins after nearly nine years of planning, he said, but he feels the project created a positive change in the culture of the community by bringing the arts closer to home.

Dobbins dreams big.

"You can't operate in a vacuum," he said. "Sure, you don't know everything that will happen. But outstanding leaders are supposed to be visionaries."

To turn visions into reality, he does three things, he said.

"You need to keep the belief that you have the right project and that there are the right resources to make it happen. And you need to be there to support making sure that it happens," he said.

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