In August 2010, James E. Cofer became the 10th leader in Missouri State University’s 105-year history.

Cofer was chosen from among four finalists to take the job in summer 2010.

Contacted about the position by a headhunter after former President Michael Nietzel’s resignation, Cofer says part of the attraction to MSU was the campus-community relationship.

“I saw the real collaborative effort that had everything going for it,” Cofer says with a molasses-rich accent suggesting Deep South roots.

While he’s relatively new to Springfield, Cofer’s no stranger to the academic world, having three degrees. He got his start at Mississippi State University, working in the graduate school under his mentor, Chester McKee.  

“I worked on grants, contracts and policies. I started teaching computer science. I was doing some interesting things such as building computer systems for the graduate school,” he says.

A turning point in Cofer’s career came in 1974, when he was hired by The National Center for Higher Education Management Systems to develop a program-costing model that could be used by colleges and universities to compare their expenditures by academic department.

Creating that program solidified Cofer’s career in higher education.

“It got me deep into administrative finances,” he says.

Cofer’s job at MSU isn’t his first in Missouri, however, as he worked 1998–2002 at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Then-president Manuel T. Pacheco challenged Cofer to shift his career focus.

“He said I could be more than a chief fiscal officer,” Cofer says. “He encouraged me to look for a (college) presidency.”

In 2002, Cofer took the lead role at the University of Louisiana in Monroe, La.

“It was financially in the hole. It was losing enrollment (and) had self-image issues,” Cofer says. “The dorms were unlivable.” During his eight years there, Cofer led construction of new dorms and a 16,000-square-foot academic success center. He also raised admission standards and added academic accreditations.

That experience will likely serve him well at MSU, which, like most public institutions, is familiar with budget woes.

In June 2010, the MSU Board of Governors approved a 2011 budget that reflected a nearly $8 million drop in expenses due in part to a 5.2 percent revenue reduction from the state. MSU stands to receive $82.8 million from the state in fiscal 2011.

Following a state audit in 2010 that showed MSU’s JQH Arena lost money in its first two years of operation, Cofer assembled a nine member task force to find ways to make the arena profitable.

Cofer’s confident he’s up to whatever financial tasks he may face.

“It’s my history to fix things,” he says.

But he says his work in Springfield won’t just stop with the numbers.

“We have to continue to build the graduate programs and make undergraduate improvements,” he says. “Public affairs need to be built into the curriculum. My main thrust is to work to improve academics.”

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