Doing More With Less
In 1991, Ken Dobbins stood surrounded by packed boxes in his living room in Ohio as a Southeast Missouri State University official explained that the University was just hit with a $1 million budget shortfall.
“They asked if I was going to still accept the position,” he remembers. “I just stared at all the packed boxes inside the house we just sold.”
Dobbins decided he would take the position as planned before the budget woes occurred. He was rewarded for that by another $1 million budget hit one month in office as the University’s new vice president for finance and administration.
“I never saw him flustered,” says Art Wallhausen, former associate to the president. “He just went to work to do what had to be done, and we survived a $2 million budget shortfall his first month in office.”
Ask anyone what Dr. Dobbins greatest accomplishment during his presidency was and you’re likely to hear about his financial acumen. A CPA, he certainly brought an able background to the position, but those who have seen him in action say it goes beyond knowledge; his financial wisdom is a gift. It’s one thing to survive a term in office in the midst of serious financial problems, but Dobbins saw the University thrive in a period filled with reduced state appropriations and a national economic crisis.
“Dr. Dobbins presided over some challenging times in higher education,” says alumnus Ross McFerron. “While many universities have gone through peaks and valleys, Southeast has continued on a consistent upward trajectory.”
Diane Sides, associate to the president, agrees. “No other institution was able to build as many new residence halls and upgrade facilities to the extent we were able to do, especially in the challenging state financial climate during his tenure.”
“He’s been able to craft a vision for the future and succeeded in meeting those goals despite the financial crises,” says Bill Holland, vice president for advancement and executive director of the University Foundation.
So how does a university president faced with budget woes succeed in expanding programs, holding tuition to affordable rates, funding renovations, overseeing new construction and not cutting salaries? That success can be attributed to his obvious financial knowledge base and good old-fashioned hard work.
As Holland says, it wasn’t luck. Dobbins created his vision for where the University needed to be to serve its students. Growth would play a factor in helping ease the University’s financial concerns. For the University to see growth, students had to first want to come, meaning certain amenities such as new residence halls would have to be in place, and second, they would need access to programs necessary to find a job in less than favorable economic conditions.
To get those programs, Southeast needed the very best faculty, which meant preserving compensation to retain and attract quality faculty. Students would need assistance in paying for their education, which meant developing relationships with friends and donors who could help with scholarships and with legislators who needed to understand the human effect of decisions made at the Capitol.
“When I was a lobbyist in Jefferson City, I remember seeing him in the halls of the state capitol going door-to-door speaking with elected officials about the University,” says Theresa Hassler, alumna. “He could have sent a staff person, but he was interested in having a very direct and meaningful role in making sure the University was foremost in their minds.”
Mike Nietzel, current policy advisor to Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, remembers his own time as a university president. “Ken was an outstanding introduction to higher education for me. Southeast has overseen a long period of sustained growth with enrollment. He’s been a big champion at the state level for need-based financial aid, so students can afford to get an education. He’s really been steadfast for students who otherwise might not be able to afford to go to college.”
The bottom line, Holland says, is nothing happened by accident. Each move and each success was part of a plan put in place to ensure Southeast was financially sound and that as many students who sought an education were able to afford one.
“Ken is a very fiscally sound administrator,” says former Cape Girardeau Mayor and former Vice President of the Board of Regents Al Spradling III. “When budgets were being cut, Ken managed to maintain the overall quality of the University and at the same time expand new and developing programming and promoted multiple construction projects on campus.”
Spradling says expansion wasn’t only a benefit to the University. “It is incalculable as to the millions of dollars from those construction projects that have been paid to the many people who live in this area for their work on these jobs. His incredible understanding of finances that allowed the University to become financially stable during a period of financial instability is one of his greatest accomplishments.”
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