Drew Brown gets right to the point in describing what it’s like to have given decades of service and seven figures worth of donations to a university in crisis, soon to be without its current leader.
“It feels terrible,” he said. “I was part of the selection committee [in 2018 and 2019] when we selected President [Matthew J.] Wilson, and he’s a tremendously talented individual. And, to lose him after a little more than a year is tragic.”
Brown made an unrestricted $1 million donation to Missouri Western State University in 2019, to tack onto significant previous contributions and service from 2007 to 2016 on the MWSU Foundation Board, among other volunteer capacities.
Wilson announced in early July that he will take a “dream job” as dean of Temple University-Japan, the largest foreign-satellite campus in that country, where Wilson earned his juris doctor degree.
Also speaking out is Steve Craig, who helms the Craig Realty Group based in Orange County, California. Craig is perhaps the most vested contributor to the university alive today, with his gifts and campaigns on behalf of Missouri Western leading to the creation of the Craig School of Business, among many other programs and initiatives.
Craig remains confident in Wilson despite the sudden event of his pending departure.
“I think (Wilson) did a yeoman’s job, a terrific job of identifying the problem,” Craig said. “And he probably had a unique perspective, in that he was a stranger coming to town. He basically said, ‘You know, this is what we need to do,’ and we did it.”
Brown is deeply worried about the implications of Wilson’s decision.
Brown noted that more than 150 applicants sought to replace the retiring Dr. Robert Vartabedian during the 2018-2019 search process. The position will not generate that much interest now, Brown said, because of the negative media attention that has been generated by MWSU’s financial crisis and the debate over how to adapt to it.
So, the university is in a tight spot. Wilson’s departure will be effective Aug. 1 and Vice Provost Dr. Elizabeth Kennedy has been designated interim president. Yet Brown sympathizes with Wilson, given how he found himself an enemy of certain interests across town early on.
“Unfortunately, St. Joseph has a habit of ... being unkind to newcomers,” Brown said. “I say that as an outsider. It’s just my observation.”
A hollow victory?
Among the more prominent figures arrayed against Wilson is Marty Grey, another significant booster of the university, who has been an outspoken critic of Wilson in recent months, in tandem with his wife, Jo Anne.
He sought to emphasize that there is no gloating going on as Wilson prepares to depart the country.
“I want to say there’s absolutely no winners here,” Grey said. “No one gets to stand up on a podium and get a medal hung around their neck or anything. Everyone concerned in this situation ... Everyone lost.”
Grey said that in light of what he considers to be a failed effort to find out more information about the state of the university’s finances via the Missouri Sunshine Law, he concludes now that no real fiscal crisis occurred.
He cites clean financial bills of health presented in annual external audits, healthy cash balances indicated in financial papers prepared throughout the Vartabedian administration, and the absence of concern among the overseeing Board of Governors in years past, among other factors, as evidence that this situation has been overblown in a damaging way.
“Yes, many universities across the county were and are challenged,” Grey said. “Many were challenged before COVID. But Missouri Western was not at a fiscal cliff before the good doctor Wilson arrived.”
Brown and Craig are convinced of the completely opposite point of view.
Craig said it is a plain fact that total enrolled credit hours have decreased some 20% in the last 10 years. That is how the university’s bread is buttered in a time where public support has slipped well below the point where not even 50% of the budget is backed by state money. Craig said the main cause of that is the loss of major corporate taxpayers in St. Joseph and elsewhere in Missouri.
“No one’s to blame for that. This is not something you would blame on the past administration,” Craig said. “It’s just the reality.”
Brown shot down the notion that Wilson contrived or misinterpreted the financial situation. Brown has put a lot of money into the university, he noted, thus his financial interest is in understanding the problem as it actually exists.
Friends and associates have cheered how his gift would have funded the Drew Brown Arts Annex, where Missouri Western creators would have been free to engage in all types of “dirty art.” Some creative fields require materials to be worked in a way that creates indoor air pollution, necessitating an advanced HVAC filtration system.
The annex would’ve provided that. But given the crisis, such a dream is so far gone, it is silly to regret its passing at this point, Brown said. The university’s future is at stake. And Brown believes Wilson, even if he won’t be around to see it in person, kept the door open to better days.
“President Wilson moved the university to the black,” he said. “And it’s been moving forward since then.”