New chancellor seeks to protect the MU brand

03/15/2014 7:42 PM

03/15/2014 7:42 PM

About 1 p.m. Friday in the University of Missouri Student Union, the MU Tigers were battling the Florida Gators on a giant screen in the busy dining hall.

Below it, the university’s new chancellor, R. Bowen Loftin, was holding court, teaching a group of students the newest campus fashion trend — how to tie a bow tie. It’s a sartorial touch Loftin brought with him to campus about six weeks ago. More than a handful of students in the Union sported bow ties, and more students wearing them strolled on campus.

Spending time with students and making sure their needs are being met are among Loftin’s top priorities, he told The Star in an interview in his office later that afternoon.

“I’ve talked with about a thousand students so far, one or two at a time,” Loftin said. “I asked each of them, ‘Where are you from, are you happy here?’ And 999 of them have said pretty quickly, ‘Yes.’ Only one hesitated.”

During the hourlong conversation, Loftin talked about online education, collaborating on degrees with other University of Missouri System campuses, protecting MU’s image, raising private funds and using social media.

Loftin, 64, a native of Hearne, Texas, announced his retirement from the presidency at Texas A&M University in July and in February took the reins as chancellor at MU. He’s so new that unpacked boxes still fill a corner in his office on the first floor of MU’s Jesse Hall.

Loftin had planned to return to the classroom after leaving the A&M presidency, but when the MU job came along, he couldn’t refuse. And so he came to Columbia with his bow ties and a host of ideas for moving the university forward.

Consider online education, which is changing the way students access knowledge in a big way, Loftin said.

“I’m a very big proponent of online instruction,” he said. For the 18- to 22-year-old undergraduate, he said, it’s a tool that allows students on campus to take needed courses they might not otherwise be able to fit into a packed schedule.

“We want students to graduate on time,” Loftin said. “We want students to manage their time well. So one key provision that online instruction gives them is flexibility.”

Between 35 percent and 40 percent of the students on MU’s campus are taking some type of online course. About 3,000 of MU’s online learners are seeking a degree from a distance.

For now, though, few undergraduate degrees can be acquired fully online at MU.

“If we were to offer degrees totally online, we would begin to lose some of what makes us special,” Loftin said. College is not solely about academics, he said; it’s about acquiring social and leadership skills, too.

On the other hand, he said, “A big part of what we want to do here at Missouri is grow the access to online master’s programs for individuals who are working and can’t relocate here … but they want a name-brand degree.”

And although Loftin said he’s all about keeping tuition costs down and increasing access, don’t expect the cost of online education to drop any time soon at MU. The $269.40 per credit hour tuition for Missouri residents is the same whether a student is sitting in a classroom in Columbia or with a laptop at their dining room table.

The same faculty teaches both. “Their salaries don’t change whether online or in a classroom,” Loftin said.

“We want to make sure that our brand is not damaged … and that we have a quality graduate. If we turn out graduates who are not capable, that hurts our brand.”

As the nation’s educators experiment with new ways of delivering and measuring higher education, Loftin said protecting MU’s brand is a big part of his $450,000-a-year job.

For example, he said, competency education — which allows a student with real-world experience in a particular field to fast-track to a degree in that area — is not something he’s ready to push for MU. Some other universities and colleges are trying it.

“I believe that in principle, it’s doable. But how do you contain the value of your brand? That is the problem I have,” Loftin said. “It is our asset. It’s what makes us who we are.”

And it’s key to persuading private donors to support the university.

Loftin, with his bass-heavy voice — a hint of southern drawl and charm — admits he’s good at wooing benefactors. In his last two years at Texas A&M, the school raised $1.4 billion.

With state support for public colleges and universities shrinking, donor support is crucial. “There’s a limit to how much you can cut,” Loftin said. “There are real limits on how far tuition can go up. You can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip.”

He started cultivating donor relationships for MU — making calls to introduce himself — even before he was officially on the payroll.

His technique, he said, “is finding people who really want to change the world and have some money.”

Loftin said he’s likely to say to a donor: “Let’s get together and solve a really big problem. Let’s solve world hunger. This is an agricultural school: We can do that sort of thing.”

He’s talking too with the leaders of the University of Missouri System’s three other campuses and collaborating to offer more joint degree options similar to two already set with the University of Missouri-Kansas City, in pharmacy and public health. He’s talking about students walking away with a diploma that bears the names of two institutions or with two degrees from separate institutions attained at the same time. Such a dual-degree proposal, maybe even sharing faculty, is already in the works.

“No one school can be good at everything,” Loftin said. “So we can couple together assets. It’s good for the student.”

Loftin said everything that happens at the university comes back to the student.

“It is what we are here for,” he said. “It is very important to me, my highest priority.” It’s why Loftin spends a chunk of time each day connecting with and listening to students on social media. With the twitter handle @bowtieger, he has about 11,300 followers.

“What I really want is to make this the best experience possible for them,” Loftin said. “It gives me encouragement to do my job. It reminds me why I am here.”

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