Jon K. Rust

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian and co-president of Rust Communications.


Ken and Jeanine Dobbins will leave impressive legacy

Tucked inside the River Campus is a dance studio named after Ken and Jeanine Dobbins. It is a functional room -- with a striking view -- that provides students the opportunity to study with top-notch instructors. Or to practice and learn on their own. The Dobbinses made a significant, but quiet gift, without fanfare, several years ago to help make the studio possible.

I recently came across the room while taking a tour of the River Campus. And it didn't surprise me to learn what Ken and Jeanine had done, because at the heart of Ken's service to the university for more than 20 years has been a passion for creating the best environment for students. It is a passion acted upon in both official capacities, and in private ways, without ostentation.

Not all university presidents are like that.

Not all CEOs are like that.

Some can talk the talk. Fewer walk the walk. But when you truly believe in the mission, as Ken Dobbins has, it's certainly easier. And Ken and Jeanine Dobbins have clearly loved Southeast Missouri State University and the mission of developing its students.

On Monday, Dobbins announced that at the end of this school year he would be retiring after 16 years as president of the university. Prior to being named president, he served eight years as vice president. In a world where the average tenure for university presidents is less than seven years, according to the American Council on Education, Dobbins' length of service is remarkable.

Over so many years, with so many stakeholders, many who make competing claims for resources, Dobbins has ruffled more than a few feathers. It's a hard job. It's not easy saying no. Demanding higher standards can be intimidating. Personal styles can conflict. And, as any leader can relate, not all decisions turn out as planned.

But any fair minded observer would agree that Dobbins' service has been profound, and that the university, Cape Girardeau and the surrounding area are vastly improved because he's been here. Doyle Privett, president of the Southeast Board of Regents, said on Monday: "We will miss him greatly. He has been one of the best presidents that any university could have ever had."

With a bean counter's sensibility to containing costs, an academic's love of the classroom, and an innovator's heart for new business models, Dobbins possesses a skillset that helped the university flourish through a challenging economic time to become a university recognized for its excellence. Along the way, he built vital relationships in Southeast Missouri, in the state capital, and across the country. He also shared his counsel with other university presidents, especially new ones as they developed, through his longtime affiliation and leadership with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities board of directors, which he chaired in 2011, and with which he has taught at its New Presidents' Academy for many years. After retirement, Dobbins will stay active with AASCU, and also consulting, which will be to the great benefit of those institutions he advises.

I won't go into a list of Dobbins' accomplishments: the record enrollments, national academic recognitions, successful sports teams (albeit sporadically in football and basketball), the dramatic expansion and improvement of the physical campus, the scores of graduates who have gone on to make their own impact in the world. There is plenty of time for talking about accomplishments before he retires, and who knows what else is up his sleeve in the next nine months. But I would like to offer a prayer -- and a thought.

The prayer is that the university and its administrators, the faculty, coaches, students, Cape Girardeau and the surrounding area, all make this year special by working together and continuing the positive momentum into the future. That would be the highest tribute to a man who has given so much to see this university thrive. I also pray that the selection committee seeks an individual who understands the complexity of academia, while bringing a strong financial sense, high integrity, a personable style and a creative spirit.

Meanwhile, I am not alone in this thought; but the idea is out there about naming something significant on the campus after President Dobbins. Without Dobbins' leadership during some difficult years, including a drag-down controversy, the River Campus itself would unlikely be here. Naming the new River Campus Center or the original seminary building -- or a portion of the southern campus itself -- after Ken and Jeanine Dobbins would be an appropriate recognition.

I'm sure, when the time is right, the board of regents will find the proper tribute. But let there be no question, few have affected the university in its history as much as Ken Dobbins.

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian and co-president of Rust Communications.