Leading a large public land grant university is a challenge even under sunny circumstances.
And then there is the challenge of leading the University of Missouri-Columbia, a campus that has been clouded by controversy and setbacks.
The university has found itself in a white-hot national spotlight in recent years, contending with highly publicized racial tensions, declining enrollment, a dwindling budget and the disdain of many state lawmakers.
The latest headlines have chronicled the loss of 400 jobs at the state’s flagship campus, the result of a $55 million budget cut, which was followed by a 2.1 percent hike in tuition.
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Welcome to Columbia, Alexander Cartwright.
He’s the new MU chancellor and the former provost and executive vice chancellor of State University of New York.
Cartwright’s arrival should bring stability to the campus. He’s accepting the reins from an interim leader who stepped in after the resignation of the last chancellor during the racial turmoil of 2015.
In his introduction of Cartwright, University of Missouri System President Mun Choi set the right tone. He said “very little daylight” would come between him and the new chancellor, promising a shared vision and “bold decisions.”
Cartwright will need a wide range of skills to recalibrate MU’s future. He must lead the charge to ensure that MU is a place where all students are valued, convince legislators of its importance so adequate funding is restored, regain the support of alumni and prospective students and cement its stature as a respected research institution that is focused on preparing students for an increasingly complex world.
Cartwright’s unique background and experience offer hope that he’ll be nimble and multitalented enough for the task.
He grew up in the Bahamas, so expect an appreciation of diverse cultures. But he also has firm roots in Iowa. He knows the work ethic of a rural life, having cleaned hog pens to pay his way through community college after earning a GED. Faculty members encouraged Cartwright to aim for graduate school, and he eventually earned a doctorate in electrical and computer engineering.
Cartwright also has relevant experience that could help the university navigate the aftermath of the 2015 student protests. Then, African-Americans staged sit-ins, calling out racial incidents, a lack of diversity among faculty and campus intolerance. Cartwright has been praised for his work as co-chair of the SUNY Diversity and Inclusion Task Force.
Adversity can be a potent motivator. In the future, we may look back at this juncture and see the arrival of Alexander Cartwright as a crucial moment for MU.