Leader on the prairie

MARSHALL – It’s a job Dr. Connie Gores has been working hard at for more than eight months already. But on Friday afternoon, as MnSCU Chancellor Steven Rosenstone placed the Southwest Minnesota State University medallion around Gores’ neck and handed her the university’s ceremonial mace, it became official.

“Here we go,” Gores joked as she accepted the mace. But as she began her inaugural address as SMSU president, it was clear Gores was thinking seriously about her responsibilities to the university and SMSU’s role in southwest Minnesota.

“I am tremendously happy and deeply humbled to stand before you as (SMSU’s) ninth president,” Gores said.

As she continued, Gores said she wanted to see the university continue its drive to provide an excellent education, and collaborate with communities in the region and beyond.

“Today, I challenge us to be the architects of our futures.”

Gores was sworn in as university president in a ceremony Friday at the SMSU Recreation and Athletic Facility. The crowd attending the inauguration included university students, faculty, alumni and community members from the area. Also among the guests were U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, state Sen. Gary Dahms and state Rep. Chris Swedzinski.

“Today’s inauguration is a special tradition. It is a rite of passage for the university,” celebrating a new chapter in its history, Rosenstone said. Rosenstone also emphasized SMSU’s responsibilities to its students and the communities of southwest Minnesota as he swore Gores in.

“You are charged to serve as a steward of this university,” Rosenstone told Gores. That means serving as a steward of students’ education and of the Marshall community, and using good leadership to advance education throughout Minnesota, he said.

Remembering a sense of place was one of the major themes of Friday’s inaugural program. Throughout the ceremonies, speakers made references to the Minnesota prairie, and the unique environment and people that helped shape the university.

“By working together we’ll bring in the harvest,” sang members of the university concert choir, as they performed a song from “The Tender Land” by Aaron Copland. In her speech of greeting to Gores, Dorene Kronke-McCourt, representing the SMSU Alumni and Foundation, emphasized the importance of having an institution of higher learning in southwest Minnesota.

“Like you, I am a person of the prairie, having grown up in Marshall. I was excited to watch this university being built on the prairie,” Kronke-McCourt said. SMSU’s presence made it possible for many first-generation college students to further their education without going deep into debt. As the university looks toward its future, she said, that prairie community also needs to open itself up to the world. “It is essential to give our students a sense of global interdependence.”

In her inaugural address, Gores echoed the writings of author and former SMSU professor Bill Holm, urging community members to look to the university’s future “with a prairie eye.”

The community members who helped found the university in the 1960s were not just dreamers, she said. “They rolled up their sleeves and got to work.” Both SMSU and the people of southwest Minnesota need to sustain that culture of dreaming and doing, she said.

Gores said the university does face challenges in the future. Both students and educational institutions in Minnesota are facing financial hardship, and population decline in southwest Minnesota makes reaching out to a wider community vital, she said.

“We must capture the spirit of working together for the common good,” Gores said. “Let us engage our prairie eye, where we can look at a square foot and see the universe.”

SMSU students who watched the inauguration shared positive feelings about both the program and the new president. As a participant in student government, Michael Paulson said he thought it was important to see the change in leadership for the university.

“I’m really happy with President Gores so far,” he said.

SMSU student Ezekial Wahl said while he wasn’t very involved with campus politics, he did appreciate Gores’ remarks at the ceremony.

“I do respect the new president’s candor,” Wahl said. “I think it really came out a lot in her speech.”