Gores: SMSU ‘ready to take off’
MARSHALL – Connie Gores, the second of two finalists to be interviewed for president at Southwest Minnesota State University, spent most of Friday getting acquainted with the people on campus and sharing her thoughts about the institution’s future.
If chosen to serve as president at SMSU, Gores said she would bring strong values, experience and expertise to the table, along with forward-thinking vision.
“I’ll be about listening and learning,” Gores said. “I’m going to really try and learn more about the institution. I think anybody who would, at this point, come in and say ‘we’ll do this, we’ll do this,’ we’ll do this,’ is probably getting ahead of oneself a little bit.”
Raised in a small North Dakota town near the Canadian border, Gores is no stranger to the prairie. It’s where she learned important values. Growing up with 10 siblings in a blended family is what drove her to be a high achiever and strong advocate for education, she said.
“I was raised on a farm for the first four years,” Gores said. “Then my dad died and left my mom with four children and we moved into town. She married a widower who had been left with five children and they had two together. It was like the Brady Bunch before the Brady Bunch was on TV.”
Gores said she learned about the importance of hard work and the importance of education, especially since her parents never had the opportunity to attend college. Her father always dreamed of going to college, she said, and her mother didn’t even graduate from high school because she had to work to take care of siblings.
“We were raised believing that higher education was very important,” Gores said. “So it’s always been a calling to me, more of a passion than it is anything else. I truly believe in the transformative powers that we have, the transformative experience that it is. Wherever you start, you’re different after you go to college. So I feel very honored to be part of this enterprise that really does make a difference.”
Gores is currently serving at Winona State University as the vice president for student life and development since 2007 and as interim president this past summer. The experience, coupled with the feedback and support she was given, reinforced her decision to explore the SMSU president opportunity, Gores said.
“About the same time, I’d been invited over here to Marshall for a development day, where they wanted me to come over and talk about student learning outcomes,” she said. They also wanted me to meet with the higher learning commission, the accrediting self study group because I am an evaluator and reviewer for the higher learning commission. I do accreditation visits. I really have an extensive background in that.”
Since WSU and SMSU are both in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system, Gores said she knew a little bit about SMSU but had never been to Marshall before. The visit left quite an impression, she said.
“I was really taken by the institution and by what I saw and what I heard,” she said. “And my interest was piqued. Then I learned that there would be this presidential opening. I got a lot of encouragement to look at the position. I’m very, very selective. This is the only search that I’m in. And I’m in the search because I really, truly see tremendous possibilities for the institution.”
Much like SMSU, increasing student enrollment has been a focus at WSU. Since her arrival, Gores said the university’s student enrollment has grown from 7,500 to 9,000.
“It didn’t happen by itself,” she said. “It was very strategic and I have done that at a number of institutions. I’ve overseen those efforts and have really been successful in that regard.”
From 2006-2007, Gores served as a project director and onsite consultant at Longwood University and as vice president for enrollment at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College from 1996-2006. Prior to that, Gores served as dean of enrollment and student affairs and as director of admissions and financial aid at Cornish College of the Arts, director of admissions and placement at Willamette University College of Law and as co-coordinator of new student programs/admissions counselor at Portland State University.
Six years ago, Gores came back to the Midwest.
“I came home,” she said. “And I have really enjoyed being in Minnesota, being part of the MnSCU system and being part of a regional comprehensive university.”
Both on a professional and personal level, Gores said she’s excited about the prospect of leading SMSU into the future.
“I see lots of possibilities,” Gores said. “I feel like the stars are all in alignment and the institution is just ready to take off.”
With every challenge, Gores said, there are also opportunities. She’s found that funding has been one of the key universal challenges in education. Those challenges include declining state support, increasing tuition and the cost and burden on students, increasing student debt and fluctuating expectations from the public and the importance of what is expected out of higher ed. Staff and faculty wages are also a concern, Gores said.
“Every institution in the country, at this point in time, has challenges with funding,” Gores said. “No matter where I’ve been, we’ve had challenges in our own way. But I have been part of a couple different institutions where we’ve really turned those situations around and helped build very strong financial bases and increased the resource base and truly helped make a difference.”
Being a smaller school in a rural environment can be challenging in some regards, Gores said, but the situation can also be an attraction for students.
“The key is the partnerships we create and the way we respond to the needs in the city, in the region, the way we partner, the way we really build on what’s already in place,” she said. “That will help the institution become much more solid, much more well known and much more robust.”
There’s no question, Gores said, that SMSU has many advantages compared to other kinds of institutions.
“Every student here has a name, is a person and has a story,” Gores said. “They are important to the future of the institution. The experience they get here, they know their faculty members, they get to have hands-on experience, so they get the abstract, the conceptual knowledge, the theory-based knowledge and then they also get to apply it. That’s where the future of higher ed is, to have the knowledge base and to apply it, to make it relevant to the students and important to the community and the region. If we can bring all of those together, we’ll turn that challenge into an opportunity and really help solidify the funding base and the support going forward.”
Gores has been impressed with support at SMSU, including alumni and booster club participation, as well as the initiating programs such as MARL (Minnesota Agriculture and Rural Leadership), agriculture and RN to BSN programs.
Gores believes the future looks promising at SMSU.
“There’s been so much good work in the last several years,” she said. “So much of the foundation has been laid for moving forward. There are so many different ways that I think we can connect with the community and build important partnerships.”
Growing up in a large family taught her how to listen and get along with people, Gores said. Those attributes can be priceless when it comes to future collaboration and partnership opportunities.
“I see people collaborating and working together in ways that I don’t necessarily see at other institutions,” Gores said. “That’s really special.”
Having conversations with students would also be on Gore’s agenda in an effort to retain current students and also attract new students to the campus.
“I’m a data-driven kind of person, both quantitate and qualitative, so I believe in the numbers and reports, but also in personal experiences,” Gores said. “I’ll want to know from students what their experience is.”
At her current institution, Gores attends an event called “Cookies with Connie,” where people can come and ask questions and she can get to know them and find out what’s on their minds. It’s a chance to have conversations with community members, people in the region and people on campus, she said.
Ronald Rosati, the other finalist for president at SMSU, was on campus on Wednesday.
With both campus interviews and visits complete, the decision now falls on Chancellor Steven Rosenstone, who is expected to make a recommendation to the MnSCU Board of Trustees at a Feb. 26 meeting.
The new president will take office July 1.