A new era at SMSU

MARSHALL – As Connie Gores officially began her duties as President at Southwest Minnesota State University this week, it became very clear that the university is headed in a positive direction.

One could even go as far as saying that the university will never be the same. That’s because Gores, SMSU’s first female president and ninth permanent one, refuses to sit still. Rather, she is known to hit the ground running, constantly looking toward the future and making improvements along the way.

“I’m not a good maintainer,” Gores said. “I really like to develop and grow upon past successes. That’s what I’m good at and I get energized by looking at new opportunities and how we can build on the good that has already been done.”

Gores credits recent visionaries, including her predecessor interim President Ron Wood, for their efforts to put SMSU on the path toward a bright future.

“I worked with President Wood, the cabinet and other faculty and staff members on campus, so I’m starting to get a good sense about the kinds of initiatives that were underway,” Gores said. “I feel that there is great momentum under way and we just need to really build on that and continue that momentum and forward growth. I’m really looking forward to that.”

Wood served as interim president since June 2011, after the retirement of President David Danahar, who spent 10 years at SMSU, the longest tenure of any of the permanent presidents in the institution’s history.

“It’s been a great opportunity for me to come back to work and to work with some great people,” Wood said. “I really enjoyed my opportunity at SMSU. We accomplished a lot of things.”

Wood proved to be a good transitional fit for SMSU, having served 10 years as president of Minnesota West Community and Technical College, where he retired in 2008. As Wood looked back at his two years at SMSU, three areas top the list in regards to greatest achievements.

“From an academic standpoint, creating the RN (registered nursing) to BSN (bachelor of science nursing degree) program for our region sticks out,” Wood said. “It was developed so we could be able to allow more bachelors of science degrees to students in Marshall and surrounding communities. We were able to navigate the shark-infested waters to get it in place. We hired a new nursing director and have a full class for fall.”

Although the project is not completed yet, Wood is also proud of the collaboration to build a new track and field complex on the SMSU campus.

“We formed a partnership with the Marshall School district to rehabilitate the old Mattke Field to a track and field complex,” he said. “Construction should start in August and will hopefully be done in early 2014.”

This fall, cross country will be offered for the second season and this winter, track and field will begin its first season in many decades.

“We already have 40 to 50 team members,” Wood said. “Our goal is ultimately, to have 100.”

Wood also takes great pride in developing and highlighting SMSU as a school of agriculture.

“That should be under full operation in the fall, with new faculty and curriculum,” he said. “That’s been a major component of what we need to do. It opens up the opportunity to do lots of things.”

Wood noted Minnesota Agriculture and Rural Leadership (MARL) is already in place at SMSU, as are the departments of agronomy and agri-business, which will become part of the school of agriculture. Ag-solutions will be a new area for SMSU.

“Ag-solutions is looking at what’s going on in the world in regards to agriculture,” Wood said. “Other things are starting to happen, too. So many things can move forward by classifying yourself as a school of agriculture.”

Though he transitioned out of his administrative role at SMSU, having officially completed his interim President duties on June 30, Wood still feels connected to the university. He cares about SMSU’s future. Fortunately, he also feels that Gores will provide the right type of leadership for SMSU.

“I think President Gores is coming in with new energy,” he said. “The one big thing is that she understands the MnSCU (Minnesota State Colleges and Universities) system so there’s not much learning that needs to take place.”

Since 2007, Gores served as the vice president for student life and development at Winona State University, which along with SMSU, represents one of seven state university systems in Minnesota.

“In regards to retention and completion rates, President Gores brings a level of expertise that the university needs,” Wood said. “She’ll work very hard on the student services side, which we’re lacking somewhat.”

Wood also believes Gores will do well when she meets with the accreditation team in the fall of 2014.

“That happens every 10 years,” Wood said. “She’s been involved with the HLC (Higher Learning Commission), so she’ll understand that process very well. As a university, you want to keep your accreditation.”

Wood still serves on the Worthington city council, so he isn’t completely retired yet. Though he’s looking forward to the perks of retirement, he still plans to stay connected to SMSU.

“There comes a time to sit back and relax and that’s what I plan on doing,” he said. “You’ll still see me on campus for activities and events, though. I’ll be in the shadows, but that’s OK.”

Wood put together a transition report for Gores so she’ll have a good sense of where SMSU has been the past few years.

Gores admits that the first thing she was attracted to at SMSU was the people. It’s why she is proud to call the place her home. She intends to learn about SMSU, its campus culture, the region and what the needs of all of those are. It’s important the institution be clear about what its distinctive features are, she said.

“You can’t be everything to everybody, so we need to identify our strengths and then decide where there is room for future growth,” Gores said. “Then, we need to communicate what those areas are.”

Gores sees the value in continuing to build partnerships in the community and in the region and is excited to see where that can lead.

“I feel like there’s a hunger for a closer collaboration and closer partnership with the city and region,” she said. “We have to continue to innovate and we have to continue to be creative and inventive, while holding onto the best of what we do.”

SMSU should be a destination, Gores said.

“We should definitely be a university of choice for students from this region, but not just this region, broader as well,” she said. “What we’re going to look at is, really, a holistic education, a holistic experience for the students so that they certainly have active, enriching lives in the classroom and out of the classroom.”

The approach develops all aspects of an individual’s life, Gores said, whether a student is involved with sports, the arts or other programs.

The budget will always be an area of focus for any university, Gores said, and SMSU is no exception. She appreciates that students will be benefiting this year thanks to state funding increases, but also realizes there are many challenges ahead.

“The budget is something we have to pay attention to and really work with very carefully,” Gores said. “We have to be good stewards of our money and resources. The budget will be one of the first things I really look at, learn about and work on.

Gores is not one to back away from challenges, so SMSU will have a strong advocate at the top.

“I’m used to challenges and I like them,” she said. “I’m like mustangs, which are spirited. They like to move and get things done. Mustangs don’t stand still. They’re not standing around grazing all the time, they’re always moving. So it’s good to be a Mustang.”