Nearly 25 years after leaving Springfield to continue her education and embark on a career centered on higher education and state government, Zora Mulligan has returned to the Queen City.
Mulligan, 45, started July 5 in the newly created position of executive vice president at Missouri State University. It’s the No. 2 administrative role to President Clif Smart, according to school officials.
The new job is a bit of a transition for Mulligan, a West Plains native who spent the past six years as commissioner of the Missouri Department of Higher Education & Workforce Development.
“I have always known I’d like to get back to Springfield. I still have friends from college who live here,” says Mulligan, a 1998 graduate of Drury University. “It’s been a long-term goal to get back down here. I was just never sure how it was going to happen.”
As executive vice president, Mulligan is tasked with overseeing several administrative areas and leading efforts to redesign MSU to meet modern education needs.
“The position is largely aimed at increasing operational effectiveness,” she says, adding that includes seeking how to more successfully harness the power of its academic programs and faculty to get more students on campus through admissions and integrated retention efforts. “Right now, I’m particularly focused on enrollment and retention and advising. That list will shift over time.”
Smart says creation of the executive vice president role was driven by the MSU Board of Governors’ desire for succession planning. That followed the announced retirements of two longtime administrators at the university: Frank Einhellig as its provost and Jim Baker as vice president for research and economic development and international programs. Both retired this summer after accumulating nearly 60 years of combined experience at MSU.
“(The Board of Governors) encouraged us to really bring somebody in who was a capable manager, good leader, experienced in higher education that could really take over and run the university if something happened to me,” Smart, 62, says. “They could also be a chief operating officer kind of person to really drive initiatives and potentially be my successor or be a candidate for that when I retired.”
The job was originally posted as an executive vice president/provost, Smart says. Mulligan was named among three finalists to succeed Einhellig, but faculty raised concerns about hiring a candidate with no experience as a professor to serve as provost. That resulted in MSU splitting the position into two. Mulligan was hired as executive VP, and former Northwest Missouri State University President John Jasinski was appointed in June to serve one year as interim provost at MSU. Smart says flexibility exists to extend Jasinski’s contract for another year.
Mulligan says she wasn’t surprised some faculty raised concerns about her qualifications to fill the provost job.
“I understand the general view that they want someone who is an academic to hold the chief academic position within the university,” she says. “Although I believed then and believe now that I could have succeeded in that role, I really respect the concerns that they raised and I’m happy with the resolution we achieved.”
Smart, whose contract continues through June 2026, says retirement isn’t in the immediate future.
“I’m under contract for the next four years. This is probably my last contract, so it’s appropriate that the board start thinking about life after Clif,” he says. “That’s a part of the analysis to create this position and bring Zora Mulligan in.”
Reflecting on her time leading the state’s higher education department, Mulligan takes pride in providing opportunities to a more diverse group of students than those when she first became commissioner. That included connecting with underserved populations and nontraditional students and creating opportunities through apprenticeship programs.
The two biggest initiatives during her tenure were Apprenticeship Missouri and Fast Track, a financial aid program for adults at least 25 years old aimed at addressing employment needs. Legislators approved a bill in May sponsored by Sen. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield, which extended the program and added $4.7 million in funding. The Missouri Department of Higher Education & Workforce Development administers funds for the program, which awarded 247 students a total of nearly $650,000 in 2021, according to past reporting.
“Here at Missouri State, we’re talking about how we can use Fast Track to expand opportunities, especially for students who might have stepped out during the pandemic,” Mulligan says. “We want to reach back out to those students and find out what can we do to help you come back and complete the degree that you knew you wanted to earn.”
Prior to taking on the state government executive role in 2016, Mulligan was chief of staff for the University of Missouri System for nearly three years, preceded by a four-year stint as executive director for the Missouri Community College Association. She also served as assistant commissioner, general counsel and legislative liaison for the state of Missouri from 2007 through 2010.
Mulligan graduated from Drury University with a bachelor’s degree in political science and psychology. She then headed to the University of Kansas, where she earned a master’s degree in education in 2000 and a law degree three years later.
Mulligan is part of the team focused on improving student enrollment at MSU. The area’s largest higher-ed institution reported unofficial enrollment of 18,383 students on the Springfield campus when classes started Aug. 22. That’s down 2.9% from opening day in fall 2021 and a record of 24,390 in 2018.
“We had been seeing the numbers, at least since I joined in July, that indicated we were going to have some enrollment decline this year,” she says, declining to disclose long-term enrollment targets. “I wouldn’t say it was a surprise but it’s certainly a number to be working against.”
Some of the strategies to reverse the decline are to forge more robust partnerships with local employers to promote opportunities for employees to skill up by seeking additional education, as well as reaching out to adults wanting to reenroll in college.
Since returning to Springfield, free time has been at a premium for Mulligan but she’s intent on refamiliarizing herself with her former college town.
“I’m fortunate in that I have a lot of old friends that live in Springfield,” she says. “As time allows, it’s been really nice to reconnect with them.”
A lover of the outdoors, Mulligan says residing in mid-Missouri made her a frequent visitor to Lake of the Ozarks. Now in Springfield, she wants to spend more time at Table Rock Lake, as that was a spot she associated with her college years. She’s also impressed with the local parks system.
“I’m a big fan of public parks, so I’ve really enjoyed the chance to walk around and enjoy some of Springfield’s beautiful city parks,” she says. “I’m looking forward to branching out to county parks in the not-too-distant future.”
While the first several weeks of her work took place on a quiet campus, students have returned for the fall semester, and Mulligan says she’s excited to be part of the new school year’s energy and the city where she spent her undergraduate years.
“I had long aspired to get into a job that put me closer to the actual life of a campus,” she says. “Working at the community college association really inspired in me that desire to get closer to campus life. I’ve been trying to get back to campus ever since then. I’ve just taken the long way.”
The congregation at Crossway Baptist Church is building a children’s wing at the west end of the church, and beginning in 2024, it will be home to a Christian academy.