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Meet MSU's new president: James E. Cofer

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Editor's Note: Reporter Jennifer Muzinic had a chance to talk by telephone with soon-to-be Missouri State University President James Cofer as he prepares to take the reins this fall.

What is your first objective when you begin Aug. 1?
I think that the first thing is the strategic plan, which has just started. There are task forces in place. … What I’m going to have to do is get to know the faculty at Missouri State, the staff and the students, and get to know the culture of Springfield and certainly know the business community and donors.

To address a $10 million drop in funding at ULM, a family and consumer sciences program was cut and some positions were eliminated. Do you have any indication that similar decisions would need to be made here?
They did a pretty good job with the budget that I saw for next year that is in place. But every school in the country, with very few exceptions, got stimulus money built in. … So everybody out there is going to have, in fiscal year 2011–12, … some type of budget issue if and when the federal stimulus for education goes away.

Now if that happens, it’s my understanding that there are some budget issues in Missouri and Missouri State. I can’t believe our federal government is going to let so many higher education institutions suffer that badly if the economy hasn’t caught back up. I think, hopefully, something will be done at federal levels. If it’s not, there’s going to have to be some very significant planning done at every school in the country, including Missouri State.

When do you start preparing for potential funding losses?
As soon as you get there. You start the process of beginning to get input. … I guess 50 percent of the faculty were involved in committees of some sort here, including faculty senate and staff senate.

We will have a process that has significant faculty and academic input. Those people who are affected by budget cuts will have a voice in the discussion as we deal with budgets. I think we’ll look at what the culture is. I’ll talk to the faculty and staff and the administration and the board, and we’ll talk about what kind of process works best for Missouri State. I will be as transparent and open and inclusive as possible in the planning stages.

From your visit to Missouri State, did you get any sense that there was nervousness about job or program cuts?
Any time you’re looking at cuts … there’s going to be anxiety. That’s just natural. I mean, you hear downsizing, you hear cuts to higher education, and then you’re going to get nervous about it.

There’s been talk of unionization by faculty. Was this something that was discussed during your interview phase? And is it a concern at this point?
I read about it, but it was not discussed with me, and I don’t believe I got a single question on that one. All I saw was the newspaper report. … I think you have to wait and see further.

I think we have to ask questions like, “Does it add value to faculty?” “Does it add value to the students’ educational experience?” “Does it add value to the institution?” And then, “What does the majority of faculty feel?” If that’s an issue, I think we need to have a general, campuswide discussion.

I think what they’ll find is that I am more than open to discuss any idea at any time.

Did you notice tension between MSU faculty and administration?
You know, you read and I don’t know how much is media hype, how much is stirred up. But what I saw is a deeply concerned faculty and a deeply concerned board about the future of higher education in Missouri State. Now, that’s what I saw. The faculty members were straight up, asked good questions and were very interested in answers. What I saw was a faculty that wanted the institution to grow and get better and stronger. And I saw the exact same thing with the board of governors.

How much of your role will be keeping balance between different groups?
People want to label me as a financial type. ... They did the same thing when I came here. But what I do best is bring people together, because I don’t mind … discussing confrontational ideas. What you have to do is bring people together, figure out what the issue is, make sure we’re not talking past each other and see what the issues are. And then set about addressing issues in the best interests of everyone involved. ... But I can also count real well.
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