JOPLIN, Mo. —
It appears to be a fairly typical fall semester at Missouri Southern State University. Classes are well under way, dozens of events have been scheduled for the Italy-themed semester and fall sports are settling into their seasons.
But there hasn’t been much movement on either of the two issues that dominated the spring semester: presidential leadership and the fate of MSSU’s international mission.
Nearly four months after ousting former President Bruce Speck, the Board of Governors has yet to form a search committee or even outline a search process.
That’s OK with Richard Walter, chairman of the board.
“We’re not moving fast, but we didn’t intend to,” he said. “We want to make it slow and deliberate.”
The search committee will include faculty, staff and student representatives. Walter said he also wants to have representatives from other key stakeholder groups, such as the Missouri Southern Foundation, the Alumni Association and the Lionbacker Booster Club.
Walter said the board also plans to hold open meetings to solicit “input” from stakeholders, but he said last week that he didn’t know exactly what kind of information would be sought.
“Dr. Buchanan and I need to talk about that,” he said, referring to Sherry Buchanan, former board chairwoman and co-chair of the search committee. “We haven’t had that conversation yet.”
Walter also acknowledged that the search process that led to Speck being named president in early 2008 was criticized by some for not having been thorough.
A committee of about 15 faculty members, staff and community professionals sifted through 41 applications and narrowed the field to two finalists. One of those finalists dropped out, instead accepting a position as president of a Tennessee university; Speck, the other finalist, was interviewed and ultimately hired.
Walter said he couldn’t comment specifically on that search because he was appointed to the Board of Governors only as it was wrapping up. But he acknowledged that some people “wished we would have been more deliberate” at the time.
In addition to desiring what he calls a “comprehensive, inclusive and deliberate” search, Walter also indicated the board is in no hurry to move through the process because the university is now helmed — at least temporarily — by Alan Marble, former president of Crowder College in Neosho.
“There are a lot of opportunities for change, and Dr. Marble is willing to get involved and make positive changes,” he said. “He has done that already, and we would like to see that continue.”
Marble has been a noticeably visible part of MSSU since being named the interim president in June on a year-long contract. He has attended faculty and staff meetings, with plans to eventually meet with the student senate as well. He has met with Joplin-area businesses and loosened control over accessibility to the president’s office. He energized faculty and staff at the start of the fall semester by pledging to believe in them and their work.
Joy Dworkin, president of the faculty senate, told the Board of Governors at its September meeting that the “positive energy and optimism” was still evident on campus more than a month into the semester.
“I think, from my perspective, a lot of that has to do with improved communication among and between the faculty and administration and staff,” she said.
Marble said he is not assisting with the search process, as the hiring of a president is the responsibility of the board.
But when asked whether he has considered applying for the permanent job when the search committee begins accepting applications, he said yes.
“I’ve given it a lot of thought,” he said. “It (MSSU) is a good place, and I enjoy it.”
Revisiting the international mission also has not publicly resurfaced this semester.
An effort last spring that was pushed by Speck sought to remove the university’s international mission designation from state statutes. The move upset some faculty, staff and students who said they were caught by surprise by the proposal and were unhappy that there had been no public discussion of the issue beforehand.
The proposal was halted by a local legislator who said he wanted to give MSSU officials more time to research potential financial consequences of eliminating the mission from statute.
Board members said at the time that they envisioned holding open meetings or focus groups this fall to gather public opinion on whether any changes needed to be made related to the international mission.
But Walter said last week that there has been no movement to revisit the subject.
“At this point, there has not been any talk of going back and examining it to determine if we want to get away from it,” he said.
Walter, who has served on the International Mission Advisory Board, said many on campus believe the international mission to be critical to MSSU.
“We’re more of a global world nowadays, and to make sure our students are successful, we want them to be prepared to live and work in Joplin, in other parts of the United States, in other parts of the world,” he said. “It’s better if they have an understanding of cultures outside of the United States.”
Marble also said revisiting the mission’s statutory designation isn’t a current priority of administrators. Over the past few months, MSSU officials have publicly focused more heavily on an ongoing internal review of programs and the implementation of enrollment-boosting initiatives designed to retain and graduate more students.
“The whole mission discussion we can have this fall, next spring, next fall, whenever,” Marble said. “Personally, I think we live in a global society, so the international mission fits that very well, but that’s me personally, and we certainly need to open up the campus discussion to see if there’s another direction people think we need to be going.”
Chad Stebbins, director of the Institute of International Studies, said eliminating the international mission from state statutes is “off the table” for now, according to his discussions with the administration. In fact, the institute will launch some new initiatives over the next few months, including commencement sashes for graduates who have studied abroad and a “Southern Safari” club for alumni and MSSU partners who want to travel internationally, he said.
“The international mission has seen a revitalization already this year and again is a priority for the university,” Stebbins said in an email to the Globe. “Dr. Marble has challenged us all to take it to the next level and find new ways to engage the campus and the community. We will be celebrating international achievements rather than apologizing for them.”