Becoming First Choice

Becoming First Choice

Dr. Ken Dobbins tours the Academic Hall dome with a group of Southeast student leaders.

A personal mantra becomes a mission for a university president focused on access, quality and enrollment. 

Southeast Missouri State University has experienced two decades of enrollment growth, and no matter who you talk with, much of the credit for that lands with the University president.

“During Dr. Dobbins’ tenure at Southeast, enrollment has skyrocketed from 8,000 to more than 12,000 students, and he’s led the planning and financing of the major expansion in student housing to accommodate Southeast’s unparalleled growth,” says Stan Crader, former board chair for the Southeast Missouri University Foundation.

Student Government Association President Caleb Cockrill seconds that assertion. “During his tenure as president, the number of students enrolling in Southeast has grown each year. Seeing growth in consecutive years is impressive, but to see it for each year of a career is quite the accomplishment,” Cockrill says.

There can be no denying that the 16 years of Dobbins’ presidency has seen Southeast’s enrollment growth; however, the plan has never been just about the numbers. His vision was less about an increase in students than it was making sure students had access to an education, which was in cutting-edge, accredited programs and that students had the chance to apply their skills as part of that education. In short, he was more interested in seeing that the students who made up the record-breaking enrollment numbers had a quality education.

“His impact is so substantial,” says Dr. Debbie Below, vice president for enrollment management and student success and dean of students. “He has worked so hard to make this University a nationally recognized university, which it is today.”

In its 2005 edition, Princeton Review included the Harrison College of Business on its list of Best Business Schools. Soon after, U.S. News & World Report recognized Southeast on its list of top-tier master’s granting public universities. Since then, Southeast has continued to garner national recognition.

“His commitment has been solid to academic programs which contribute to the general improvement of students, faculty and the University as a whole,” says Dr. Vijay Anand, assistant professor of cybersecurity. “The cybersecurity program owes a lot to Dr. Dobbins’ leadership. Allowing faculty members to present the program to different agencies within the U.S. government adds recognition to the program.”


But again, numbers weren’t a sole focus. It also wasn’t just about the accolades. Equally important was ensuring the programs had the quality to back up the praise. Dr. Below says national accreditations were sought wherever possible. There are 24 programs currently accredited and more in pursuit of program accreditation. Those accreditations mean it wasn’t just the University touting the quality of a program. The programs were evaluated by independent agencies that set their own standards. The accreditation means the program’s legitimacy and quality has been tested, strengthening the program’s reputation.

“During Dr. Dobbins’ administration, the Department of Mass Media has been nationally accredited, making us one of only two programs in the state of Missouri to meet the national academic standards of excellence,” says Dr. Jim Dufek, professor of mass media. “His support of resources, staff, space and technology helped us accomplish this significant recognition.”

When it comes to student learning opportunities, Dobbins has been a supporter of anything to give Southeast students an edge or hands-on experience in the field, such as the new Catapult Creative House focused on putting students’ entrepreneurial mindsets to work. Dufek says the new Center for Excellence in Mass Media, a partnership with community media Rust Communications and KFVS12, will also offer students the opportunity to put their knowledge to work now with media professionals on Media Row. These are only two examples of initiatives sought to give students experience before they graduate.

“His support for EDvolution has been a big benefit for the College of Education,” says Dr. Diana Rogers-Adkinson, dean. “This has been an amazing change for our program that allows us to lead the field in educational technology.”

EDvolution is an initiative Southeast has spearheaded to become a leader in producing graduates who are technologically ready and who model 21st century teaching techniques. The goal is to create a community of learners around integrating technology with faculty and students.

Dean of the College of Liberal Arts Dr. Frank Barrios says his programs, too, have benefited from that support.

“He is continuously looking to make sure that our programs reflect the state-of-the-art in various disciplines, and he encourages us to make changes and revisions to ensure this. The College of Liberal Arts has seen an increased number of programs and new facilities plus several new faculty additions in recent years,” says Barrios.


Southeast is the only university in the nation to participate in a week-long program with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington, D.C. think tank comprised of scholars and board members who advise the federal government on significant social, economic, environmental and political global issues. Again, the partnership was forged by Dobbins to expose Southeast’s students to global trends.

“Our Southeast students get to interact with some of the leading policy researchers of today,” says Dr. Willie Redmond, professor of economics. “This part of the program is closely aligned with the experiential focus that we have at Southeast.”

“CSIS was an unforgettable experience,” says Southeast junior Tyler Sayer. “It’s easy to be content going through a daily routine, ignorant to the world around us, but seeing on this larger scale how decisions made by politicians every day affect the lives of not just me, but people all around the world gives you an unbelievable understanding of how vital it is to be an informed individual.”

Alumnus Adam Hanna says as a student involved with student government, he had the opportunity to also benefit beyond the classroom, even meeting with Dr. Dobbins and legislators to discuss the University.

“His passion for Southeast always came through,” says Hanna. “When he was pitching a new idea, it was never about the buildings or the bureaucracy. It was about how it would benefit students.”


Benefiting students means more than offering quality programs, facilities, and experiences. It also means ensuring students who desire to pursue that knowledge have the opportunity to do so.

“He made it clear that affordable education would be a goal,” says former Cape Girardeau Mayor and former Vice President of the Southeast Board of Regents Al Spradling, III. “It was important to Ken to export the University throughout the region, so it could be accessible and affordable to not only those who want to live in Cape Girardeau or attend the University in Cape Girardeau, but also for those, who because of certain circumstances, could not.”

Access. It is a word heard time and again in answering what Dr. Ken Dobbins’ greatest achievement has been as president. This emphasis is visible in making sure those in the Missouri Bootheel have access to degree programs; online students can take courses to fit their schedules; and first-generation college students can afford to set a new course for their families. The diversity of Southeast’s student body exemplifies the world and every student, regardless of who he or she is, would have not just the opportunity to learn but also the support they need.

“Educators set things in motion, and it may be years before you see what they’ve done,” says former Associate to the President Art Wallhausen. “Thirty-six percent more students are attending Southeast in the Missouri Bootheel. People have to work, and in the past, a person would have to travel 80-100 miles to get a degree. Opening the regional campuses has made a big difference. Now, along the I-55 corridor, you are never more than 30 minutes away from an institution of higher education. When more people can attend college, you’re going to see a regional economy improve. Degrees mean dollars and jobs for people. That’s a good mission for a University.”

The regional campuses in Kennett, Malden and Sikeston offer access to higher education and degree programs that can be earned locally. Dobbins’ work with the campuses stressed the idea that the physical ability to travel to earn a degree shouldn’t prohibit anyone who wanted one. The centers serve traditional students who aren’t ready to go off to college. They also serve the working professional who can’t leave employment to get a degree. In an area that is heavily focused on agriculture, they help students who are needed on the family farm but still want to pursue higher education. And, years after their inception, the difference the regional campuses make is astounding.

“The Kennett Regional Campus has afforded me many opportunities,” says alumnus David Bradshaw. “After receiving my A.A. and B.S. in education there, I began my journey as a third grade teacher with a sense of pride and accomplishment. Ten years and two graduate degrees later, I’ve been a successful teacher and my experiences have come full circle. I spend my free time working at the regional campus as an adjunct instructor for the College of Education.”

Lynn Busch attributes her success to the regional campus as well. She says without the opportunity to earn her degree in psychology at the regional campus, she wouldn’t be now pursuing a master’s degree in counseling at the Cape Girardeau campus.

Crader thinks it was Dobbins’ own experiences that led him to make access a mission. “I think being a first generation college student and needing to work his way through school is most likely the driving force behind his achievements.”

For those students who still couldn’t make college work even with local higher education campuses, Dobbins’ leadership brought the birth of Southeast online programs.

“Online programs have grown at a startling rate,” says Dr. Allen Gathman, professor of biology and associate dean of online learning. “It’s brought educational opportunities to a wide range of students who had been unable to make use of them before.”

The increase in dual credit programs allow high school students to earn college credits online, meaning college can become much more affordable, thereby, much more attainable.

These opportunities mean Southeast students have diversified as well: non-traditional and first-generation students can earn a degree. African-American enrollment surpassed 1,000 for the first time in fall 2013, and international student enrollment is at 1,100. This progress is remarkable considering only 316 African American students were enrolled at Southeast in 1996 and international student enrollment was as low as 176 in 2005. But, it wasn’t only about increasing the numbers in any population. The mission was always about offering the opportunity to study. And, Southeast has remained focused on giving students that opportunity and retaining these student populations from freshman to sophomore level at a higher rate than the student body as a whole.

Hanna says student focus across all populations is one of the president’s greatest accomplishments. “Dr. Dobbins transformed the University into a truly student-centered institution. This student-centered approach has been the major driver for Southeast’s growth in enrollment during his tenure.”

Dr. Below agrees that successful student experiences come back to enrollment growth.

“We’ve not grown rapidly; we’ve grown strategically,” says Below. “As we saw opportunities, we seized them, and I think Dr. Dobbins has the ability to look ahead one to two years and lead us, so Southeast was always on the cutting-edge of where higher education was moving.”



Southeast Students in action at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, D.C.  


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