Jon K. Rust

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


University makes right choice in next president

On Wednesday Dr. Carlos Vargas-Aburto was announced by the Board of Regents to succeed Dr. Ken Dobbins as president of Southeast Missouri State University. Vargas is acting president of Kutztown University, a regional university (like Southeast) of around 9,500 students located in rural Pennsylvania. He has a distinguished record in higher education, both as an educator and as an administrator.

A native of Mexico, Vargas earned his masters and Ph.D. in physics and aerospace science from the University of Michigan, and held various academic, research and administrative leadership roles at Kent State University and then Central State, both in Ohio, before joining Kutztown. Before being elevated to acting president there, he was provost and vice president for academic and student affairs.

Vargas' track record, as well as his performance throughout the search process, suggests he will bring a dignified, empathetic, inclusive and collaborative style to Southeast -- with the interests and development of students placed first. In addition, he brings a great deal of experience in navigating some of the biggest challenges in higher education, having forged a plan to traverse massive state funding cuts in Pennsylvania. Thankfully, Southeast Missouri State is on much firmer ground, something that Dr. Vargas has been quick to point out at various stops, giving tribute to Dobbins and the full university community here.

"This is something I never dreamed of," Vargas said at the announcement. "I am that typical, low-income first-generation student. I never thought I would be here."

Turning to Dobbins, "What you have done with the institution is fantastic, and it is clear everyone here recognizes that. ¬Ö This is a very serious matter. And you will not find anyone more passionate than me."

I feel honored to have served on the presidential search and screening advisory committee, which whittled 46 candidates for the position down to the final four. The committee was made up of representatives from various university constituencies, who developed bonds of trust and camaraderie throughout the process (spending hours reviewing resumes, questionnaires and public documents, then meeting the candidates and debating their merits afterward). The discussions were informative, enlightening and robust. Sometimes, they were even amusing, thanks to levity most often injected into the proceedings by businessman, author and university benefactor Stan Crader or economics professor Dr. Willie Redmond.

The tough decision -- to pick one from a highly talented final group -- rested with the Board of Regents. Doyle Privett, past president of the board and chairman of the search committee, made the official announcement.

"Dr. Vargas is the perfect person to lead Southeast Missouri State," Privett said. "In the first round of voting, he was unanimously selected. His experience and commitment to excellence in higher education makes him the ideal president to lead us into the future."

With the announcement, the room erupted into applause. Congratulations President Vargas. We are thrilled to have you on board.

Something powerful about the search committee is that it afforded those on it to hear from some of the top, emerging academic leaders in the country. For those of us not in academia, it was like an executive course on the issues of higher education: curricular management, distance learning, the importance of diversity, fundraising strategies and alumni engagement, legislative relationships, institutional innovation and differentiation, community partnerships, shared governance, sports, student recruitment and retention, faculty and executive recruitment, and the list goes on. As these leaders provided their vision for the future, something else powerful began to emerge: In most areas, Southeast Missouri State University is ahead of the game. That, too, is a tribute to Ken Dobbins and the full university community.

In the past 16 years under Dobbins the university has accomplished much. On Friday, for these accomplishments, Ken and his wife Jeanine were honored with the naming of the River Campus Center in their honor. This new building includes classrooms and practice spaces, a dining hall and dormitory. It is situated to the north of the old seminary building, as part of the larger, visually-stunning (and talent-laden) River Campus.

On Friday, the Dobbinses were also recognized along with Stan and Debbie Crader by the University Foundation with its highest award, "Friends of the University." The ceremonies throughout the day provided an opportunity for many to give tribute to Ken and Jeanine, and for them in turn to share about their love of this place. For those who were there, it was heart-touching, amusing, inspiring and ¬Ö comfortable. As Jeanine said at one point, standing on the stage in Bedell Performance Hall in front of a large crowd, "Looking at your faces here today, I think I know 80 percent of you. So many friends. Thank you."

The Dobbinses will be here until July. Then they will be missed.

Dr. Vargas has his work cut out for him. By all appearances -- and with the help of a board of regents now under the dedicated leadership of Jay Knudtson, a stellar executive and academic leadership team, and positive momentum from the current president and throughout the campus -- he seems ready for the task.

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian and co-president of Rust Communications: jrust@semissourian.com.