Anyone listening to last week’s speech from Missouri Western State University’s new president was likely to be disappointed.
That is, if those in the audience were expecting dry, academic oratory on the value of higher education.
There is nothing dry about Matt Wilson, who replaces Dr. Robert Vartabedian as the fifth president of Missouri Western. In remarks at a St. Joseph Chamber of Commerce event, Wilson spoke with passion about the value of higher education.
You would expect a university president to outline the advantages of a college degree, in terms of earnings power and softer, less tangible benefits like community engagement and quality of life. You would expect him to be enthusiastic about his new community and employer.
Wilson did those things. But what strikes us as encouraging, both from Wilson’s speech last week and an op-ed article published in Sunday’s News-Press, is his willingness to take an unvarnished, outsider’s look at the university and its role in the community. All you need to know about Wilson is that, in a past job interview, he suggested that a university building was among a handful in the nation that should be demolished.
He’s not afraid to talk about challenges in higher education: declining state aid, scholarship recipients who don’t get degrees, a smaller pool of traditional college-age students and “entrenched traditions” that can become an impediment to change.
“Don’t recoil,” he said. “Think of it as an opportunity going forward.”
Community leaders, and not just those at Missouri Western, sometimes have a hard time talking frankly about the faults and blemishes of St. Joseph. All too often, this kind of self-analysis is seen as a sign of negativity and weakness rather than an opportunity for improvement.
If you don’t believe that statement, consider that the St. Joseph police send a helicopter into the night sky on a semi-regular basis to flush out a certain criminal element. We all see it, hear it and comment on it, but some people still refuse to acknowledge that St. Joseph might have a crime problem, or at least a need to move the dial in the other direction on public safety.
In higher education, a university campus is a place of dynamism and new ideas, but innovation is often relegated to the classroom and the research lab. If Wilson strives to bring that spirit to the administration building, it’s something that students, faculty and indeed the entire community should welcome.
Here’s an unvarnished view: St. Joseph can sometimes seem insular and unwelcoming to outsiders with new ideas. But sometimes, an outsider’s view is just what you need.