An interview with Carlos Vargas as SEMO celebrates 150 years

Carlos Vargas, president of Southeast Missouri State University, celebrates the school’s 150th anniversary on March 22, 2023. Vargas is SEMO’s 18th president. (Photo by Megan Burke)

Carlos Vargas may regard March 2023 as one of the best 30-day periods of his eight-year tenure as president of Southeast Missouri State University.

Vargas traveled to Dayton, Ohio, on March 14 to see SEMO’s men’s basketball participate in its first NCAA Tournament game since 2000. On March 22, he led the kickoff celebration for the university’s year-long sesquicentennial celebration.

Both events were on Vargas’ mind as he sat down for a lengthy interview with B Magazine.

B MAGAZINE: The Redhawks have just taken part in their first NCAA Tournament in almost a quarter of a century. What do you see as the impact of that game on the university? Is there a way to measure economic impact or do you see it simply as a way to create new awareness of SEMO that may pay benefits down the line?

VARGAS: A couple of years ago when I was talking to Brady Barke, our athletic director, Brady shared with me a publication showing the increase in enrollment seen in a couple of [educational] institutions after they’d won the national championship the previous year. … It kind of surprised me a little bit to see that kind of immediate impact after having performed so well athletically at the national level. I must confess it really surprised me to see how many people were aware of the success of [our] institution.

When we had the gathering at the Show Me Center for the NCAA Selection Show, where we found out who we were going to play, the number of people who showed up was very impressive, more than we normally had for some of our basketball games.

We have monitored the number of visits to our athletics website, and it was up by a factor of three or four. So, to answer your question, it did indeed make a difference that we made the NCAA Tournament. I think it does make a difference in a student’s decision to attend an institution.

When people hear about the school, it has an impact in their minds and you may end up being very effective at communicating who you are by what people see and hear about you, and I suspect there is a potential for a significant increase in our enrollment. But it really should not be the result of a single year.

When you create a pattern and we’ve done that in athletics. Since 2019, I think every one of our sports has won an OVC championship or a national championship. The point is we are creating a name for ourselves, and I think that’s going to be reflected in [future] enrollment numbers. … If we continue in the way we are athletically, it will have a meaningful impact on our ability to recruit students to Southeast.

B MAGAZINE: You see a direct tie, then, between athletic success and increased enrollment?

VARGAS: Yeah, because in some ways, you can almost see athletic achievement as being a tool for marketing. I don’t mean to use language that may be misinterpreted but, when your [institution’s] name gets out there, it’s a way of promoting your school, which can be a byproduct of athletic success.

Academic success, of course, is another way. Your school’s location, if attractive to a student, is another factor. We just take all the characteristics of our region and use them to promote the university and what we bring to the table.

B MAGAZINE: Is the Redhawks’ success in men’s basketball and in other sports over the past several years being reflected in increased alumni giving?

VARGAS: I believe that is the case, and I’ve already seen it. The recent Giving Day went extremely well. Some of the individuals who are donating, and I won’t mention names, but they tell us they’re energized by what the institution is doing, even athletically. Let me add that in Dayton, we had more fans there at the game than the other team. Our band, our cheerleaders, our Sun Dancers were all there, and the turnout in Ohio was impressive.

B MAGAZINE: How can SEMO students be helped to become more nimble so they can adjust to the waves of the market and the future economy?

VARGAS: One of the things we need to do is make sure our students end up believing they can actually create their own jobs. I’m not sure universities pay enough attention to making sure our students leave [SEMO] with a conviction they can actually create something new. I’ll confess, when I finished college, I didn’t think I could create something that was not already out there in the world. It just didn’t resonate with me then. I’m trying to help students these days not to have the same limitation I had during my days in college.

B MAGAZINE: No organization, no school, can be all things to all people. For example, if you mentioned Washington University in St. Louis to someone, what you might hear in response is, “That’s a great engineering school.” What do you imagine people say about the school you lead today?

VARGAS: I will answer, but I do so at the risk of excluding a particular program or a faculty area, but let me mention the following. We at Southeast have become very, very strong in our visual and performing arts, the result of investments the institution, the city and the state of Missouri have made in our programs for which we are now reaping the benefits. We want to prepare students to address the emerging needs of industry and business. You can talk about cybersecurity, our professional pilot program, our degree in geographic informational science (GIS) and applied computer science. These are very strong for us. At the same time, we have a strong tradition for business courses, which are accredited by the most prominent accreditation organizations. Same thing for education. You talk to people, and you’ll hear that people are very pleased with teachers who are Southeast graduates.

We have over 30 specialized accreditations, which, I must tell you, is an expensive proposition for a university. You cannot have a student-faculty ratio that is considered too high and that’s a way of making sure every student gets enough access to faculty members, so he or she doesn’t fall through the cracks. This is very important in our nursing program, which is very well known in our region. We have created the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, because we believe it’s an important way for Southeast to ensure a rounded education for our graduates.

B MAGAZINE: Your predecessor, Kenneth Dobbins, used to speak about the importance of international students to SEMO’s Cape Girardeau campus. You’re an international president hailing from Mexico. How would you characterize the strength of SEMO’s international program in 2023?

VARGAS: When I came here in July 2015, we had almost 1,200 international students enrolled. We lost many of them for a variety of reasons. But I will say in the last academic year, we are almost back to the same number we had when I arrived. (A follow-up question to university officials on enrollment revealed there were 1,131 international students at Southeast in the fall 2015 semester. In the fall 2022 semester, the number was 1,068.)

The reality is we have made serious efforts to be attractive to international students, and I think this is why we’ve been able to regain the same level of international enrollment we had previously. I totally agree bringing international students to our main campus is a benefit for those who are U.S.-born.

There’s more to this than just numbers, though. Jobs more and more today require being able to interact and be part of a team that may be in some ways multicultural. We want to give students the opportunity to interact with those of other cultures. This gives students a big “leg up” in terms of being competitive for jobs in the marketplace.

B MAGAZINE: Partnerships seem increasingly to be important for universities. For example, SEMO has a professional pilot program because of a partnership between SEMO, a Texas airline company and Cape Girardeau Regional Airport. Would you speak to SEMO’s investment in partnerships?

VARGAS: We’re always looking for partnerships. The relationship between the university, the airport and U.S. Aviation Group in Denton, Texas, is the one you referenced. We also have an agreement with Century Casino in Cape Girardeau to use what used to be their Farmer’s Pick Buffet Restaurant as a laboratory for students. We hold classes there giving students the opportunity to work in a commercial kitchen for degrees that include one in nutrition dietetics hospitality management.

B MAGAZINE: Perhaps one of the lessons going forward from SEMO’s 150 years is how an institution of higher learning survives a major health crisis such as COVID. What lasting lessons were gleaned?

VARGAS: We were able to put together a group including students, faculty and staff, meeting two times, sometimes three times a week, trying to make decisions. We established, for example, regular contact with Cape Girardeau County’s Public Health Center and its director, Jane Wernsman. I am deeply appreciative of all who pitched in to help. We kept in mind we had individuals who ran the gamut of opinion — from those who didn’t believe in the pandemic to those who didn’t believe in masking to those who fully believed everybody should be masked. Trying to navigate an environment that was so divisive was really difficult.

I will tell you I’m so proud of how we kept our rate of infection low, and we were never seen by the larger community as a source of infection. People worked hard on this. We opened up a closed residence hall, Dearmont, which was used for isolating the COVID-affected. People in the residence hall and other university housing were under so much stress that I have no words to describe what they did to persevere. We really did weather COVID well compared to some other institutions. On a permanent basis, before COVID, progress to utilize technology for distance learning was moving along but very slowly. When the pandemic happened, we had to make it work and now we have options for students. I am personally very concerned that our faculty have the ability, the resources and the training they need to use technology to deliver education in the best way possible.

One other permanent change is a hybrid approach to work by our employees. Members of our university community now expect some degree of flexibility. Maybe it is that some of our employees don’t have to be in the office all the time but can work remotely. We are working with a consultant to help us navigate any changes. I can tell you we experienced the loss of a few individuals at SEMO who have gone to work for organizations for whom they literally work from home now. There are some situations at Southeast where jobs will lend themselves to a remote environment and others will not but we are open to the discussion.

B MAGAZINE: You’re a teacher at heart, trained in physics and aerospace science and have what is now referred to as a classic STEM background. As president of this university, putting on your teacher’s hat, is it more important to train SEMO students to do critical thinking or is it more vital to equip them with a specific skill immediately usable in the job market? If you had to make a choice between the two, which would you make?

VARGAS: If I have to make a choice, I believe creating critical thinkers is more important. Many people today believe in immediate gratification. They want something they can turn around and convert into an income. Education is not something that provides immediate gratification. You have to work at it, you need to develop skills; you have to have some ability to do critical thinking, which can be elusive.

Let me tell you how I find out if someone is a critical thinker. A critical thinker is identified by how sophisticated the questions are that the other person asks. I often mention to students a famous physicist who created magnetic resonance technology used today in the medical field. That physicist was once asked how he became a scientist. He told them it was his mother’s influence. He told them his mother never asked what he learned that day in school but wanted to know what good questions he asked. The mother started early creating in her son the notion that asking questions was a good skill to have. And the boy began asking himself what a good question was for a particular day or for a class. I actually relay this story when students come for SEMO orientation. So, absolutely, if I must make a choice, I’d rather give a student the ability to think critically than provide a specific skill set. If I choose the other option, then what happens when the skill I imparted is superseded by a new one?

I hate to make a forced choice between the two options. My hope is both can be provided to a student, but at the same time, becoming a critical thinker is vital.