The June 27 announcement that James Cofer, the 10th president of Missouri State University, was stepping down as the school’s top administrator to take a teaching position after less than a year of service was shocking to some of his closest associates. As the state’s second-largest public university presses forward, the questions left in the wake of his sudden resignation may be both condemning and unanswerable. The move comes shortly after university provost Belinda McCarthy also decided to return to teaching and as two-thirds of the board of governors are winding down their terms.
MSU’s general counsel and now interim President Clif Smart said he wasn’t sure when he was first approached about his new role with the school – either the evening of June 24 or the morning of June 25.
“It’s all been kind of a blur,” Smart said. “It was not until after the return-to-faculty agreement was signed by the president that (board Chairwoman Elizabeth) Bradbury asked me if I would be interested in the job, and initially, I declined. (Board members) circled back around on Saturday and encouraged me to consider it further, and we had more conversations Sunday. Ultimately, I agreed.”
Attempts to reach Cofer for comment were unsuccessful. In a university news release, Cofer said, “At this particular time, I believe that the position necessary to best serve Missouri State is one closely tied to the classroom and working with students much more directly than in the past. In that light, the Board of Governors has agreed for me to transition back to the classroom as provided in my contract.”
Cofer will begin his teaching position in the fall semester of 2012.
Smart’s first act as interim president was to name Frank Einhellig, longtime dean of the graduate college, interim provost. Einhellig was scheduled to become associate vice president for research July 1.
As part of a Memorandum of Understanding signed between Smart and the MSU Board of Governors, Smart will be subject to the following conditions in his position:
- he will serve in the interim indefinitely, but he or the school could end the appointment with 30 days notice;
- he will receive a $180,000 salary along with Tower Club and Hickory Hills Country Club memberships, but he will not receive a housing allowance;
- he declined the courtesy car that comes with the position and will forfeit his $6,000 car allowance;
- he will not ask for funds to pay for his wife to travel with him; and
- he will decline free meals unless they are part of an MSU or MSU Foundation event.
Smart said in his first three days, he met with key staff about McCarthy’s return to faculty, talked to Gov. Jay Nixon about a future visit to the school and visited with athletic staff and student orientation leaders.
The presidential search process would possibly begin in four to eight months because the terms of six of the nine board members were ending this year, and Smart said he might consider applying.
“We’re a long way away from me considering to apply for the job, permanently. It’s pretty hard 72 hours into the job to know if you’re up for it, if you’re good at it (and) people respond well to you,” Smart said. “My focus is on doing the best job I can and building consensus to reinvigorate the university.”
Board Chairwoman Bradbury, a retired human resources consultant from Center in northeast Missouri, said the size of Missouri State – with a systemwide enrollment of more than 23,000 – might have been an obstacle too large to overcome for Cofer, whom she described as “student-focused.”
“He spent eight years as president of University of Louisiana-Monroe. In retrospect, I think it was difficult for him to not have the regular interaction with students he desired,” Bradbury said.
Bradbury said when Cofer delivered his resignation to the board, he was so convincing in his desire to teach, no one questioned it.
“He presented such a thoroughly thought-out plan that nobody tried to talk him out of doing what he clearly felt was best for himself and the university,” Bradbury said.
She said former President Mike Nietzel, who retired after five years as president but stayed in the position during the search for Cofer, had worked well in the community as the face of the university. Bradbury said Cofer had been a champion of students and was very involved on campus. She said the next leader should be a combination of the two.
Faculty Senate Chairwoman Rebecca Woodard said she was “very surprised” to learn Cofer had stepped down.
Woodard said she believed those who had worked closely with Cofer were impressed by his genuine care for faculty and students.
“I think he was very committed to making this a better place to be a faculty member,” Woodard said, adding that Cofer had worked to make sure teachers would receive pay increases and that they had appropriate work loads. “He just didn’t have enough time.”
She said many faculty had been upset by the announcement of Cofer as president in May 2010, not because they felt he was unqualified, but because they didn’t believe they had a voice in the selection process – something she hopes changes this time around.
Woodard said many faculty were frustrated with McCarthy’s decision to assign Einhellig to the research position he had been scheduled to take. She said Einhellig was very popular among faculty, and believed many were pleased with his reassignment to the position of interim provost.
She didn’t know if the internal transitions of McCarthy and Cofer were somehow related.
“I know Dr. Cofer did support Dr. McCarthy, and he did his best to support any initiatives Dr. McCarthy wanted to pursue,” Woodard said. “It could be possible that with Dr. McCarthy deciding to step down, he decided to step down as well.”
Paul Kincaid, longtime chief of staff for the office of the president, said he was surprised to learn of Cofer’s announcement from the board of governors.
“It takes about a year at least for a transition, and we hadn’t gone through a full year, yet,” Kincaid said, describing his relationship with Cofer, and Cofer’s relationship with the job, as still developing. “It’s fair to say that Dr. Cofer was focusing more on internal matters instead of external matters.”
Woodard said she had not spoken personally with Cofer about his decision to leave the presidency, but she said she planned to.
“I’ll ask him why. I don’t know if he’ll tell me anything differently than what he told others, but I want to know the real reason he’s decided to leave,” she said.[[In-content Ad]]