The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


April 19, 2013

Jeff Billington, guest columnist: Kill international mission, stunt the university

ROCKVILLE, Md. — As is common for many people, my college degree hangs on the wall in my home office. It is a bachelor’s in mass communications from Missouri Southern State College, and while the “college” has since been replaced with “university,” my ego has always been content with the older name keeping watch over my home’s business center.

During the past 10 years that I have lived in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., working alternately in politics and nonprofits, I have made friends from all walks of life, many of whom have degrees from Ivy League schools and other acclaimed and prestigious universities. And this is something for them to be proud of, and it is often something that will get them a job interview before I do.

 But at times I sense a little jealousy in them, especially when I tell them about the great experiences I had at Missouri Southern, specifically those connected to the international mission.

Often during this conversation they will ask me: “What is an international mission?” So I explain that a couple of decades ago, the state decided that this little corner of Southwest Missouri needed something special, that the students at its college needed a broader understanding of the world and how to function in an increasingly global community, so it established a mission that would in turn create new globally focused courses and programs and introduce international aspects into existing ones. And it worked.

 Suddenly the international aspects of everything from business to science to education were being newly explored by the students. This included me, a naïve freshman who had lived his entire life on a farm in McDonald County.

So, while my friends can brag about their Yale, Harvard and Penn State, I can brag about a program that made it possible for me to travel to Australia, France, Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama and learn about the greater world around us.

These were trips that inspired and motivated me to really go out into the world and try to accomplish something not just for me, but for everyone. While most of them were sitting in lecture halls packed with 300 other students, my college made the world my classroom. The broad vision of the international mission helped to propel me from McDonald County and into the world with an expanded mind and a thirst for knowledge, the explicit aim of a good college.

But as vivid as my Missouri Southern experience is in my past, it is just as faded in my eyes for the university’s future students. The Joplin Globe article (April 18) on the push in the state Legislature to mothball the international mission paints a picture of a shortsighted university president, who is actively urging the banishment of the mission. President Bruce Speck has been given a vote of no confidence by the university’s faculty and under the Board of Governors’ guidance was directed to have an “open management” style, meaning the board members instructed him to talk with the faculty and staff before pursuing changes like this.

 But this instruction and his following pledge to uphold it seems to have been ignored, as the director of MSSU’s Institute of International Studies had no clue about this development until after the fact. I think it’s safe to say he is not the only one. Even the vice president for academic affairs seems to have missed out on that part of the equation, though based on the president’s comments, it was his goal.

And while Dr. Speck claims that removing the mission will have no impact on the courses and programs at the university, one cannot help but notice that the mission is the only concrete policy keeping those programs in place. And his reasoning as to why it needs stripped holds no water, as admissions numbers show that the mission has not negatively impacted student enrollment and in fact may have bolstered it through the years. One can only imagine his true intent, especially considering it was never explained to the staff or faculty at the university, even though the shared governance policy dictates otherwise.

Without the international mission, my own experience at the university would have been much more lackluster and my career likely stunted, as I have gotten jobs before based on the international experience that the mission afforded me. So the choice is simple: If the state Legislature and Dr. Speck want to provide only a minimal college education to the local area, go ahead and kill the mission, but if the university wants to truly train its students to go out into the world and make a difference and be successful, then it must be retained under the current state statute.

Jeff Billington lives in Rockville, Md. He is senior media relations manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.

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