Adaptability. Positivity. Responsibility. These are the three major themes that newly appointed President Nora Miller has outlined as a focus of her presidency at The W.
"We are constantly scanning the horizon for changes in the economy, in regulations, in student demand, and in the workforce,” she said. “This university has always adapted to better serve our students and our state.”
These are also the qualities, she adds, that will sustain The W as it evolves in an ever-changing environment.
“Adaptability and responsiveness are in our institutional DNA,” she said. She pointed out that the Industrial Institute and College (1884), the first iteration of what would become today’s university, focused primarily on workplace skills for an underserved Mississippi population, at that time women. Legislators who voted on the Senate bill that would establish II&C believed that “The poor farmers of Mississippi can send their daughters; and here they can gain a good practical education.” The focus was on work, and students left with an “industrial certificate.”
Over time, the needs of students changed, leading in 1920 to the establishment of Mississippi State College for Women. “The focus was no longer just on practical education, but a combination of both vocational and academic courses that led to a four-year degree,” Miller said. “The university adapted to better serve its students and their preparation for the future.” That has been a hallmark of The W since its beginning, Miller said. “As an institution, we have shown that we have the energy, the collegiality, and the willingness to change when it is in the interest of our students and our state. That willingness makes us a stronger university, and that is the positivity I want to continue to anchor our decisions for the future.”
The “can-do” culture has sustained The W through changes such as a renaming in 1974 to acknowledge the addition of graduate degrees to the academic curriculum. Mississippi University for Women was established and a new path forged. And in 1982, the university accommodated an historic change with the admission of males for the first time in its history. Today, The W is approximately 19 percent male. “Each change is an opportunity to strengthen our mission and our effectiveness,” Miller said. “I believe our ‘can-do’ spirit and our willingness to work together will give us a strong foundation as we plan for our future.”
In more recent years, she said, The W has shown its adaptability by developing strong programs in nursing and health sciences, a major need in the region and state; and by developing innovative programs such as the low-residency MFA in creative writing, which has drawn students from around the nation. “Where it has made sense, we have renamed programs to better reflect market needs, such as establishing the master of business administration in the College of Business and Professional Studies, formerly a master’s of science in global commerce. Our faculty members are forward-looking and recognize the benefits to their students.”
Miller also is a realist who, as the longtime chief financial officer, knows the importance of stewardship of resources. “It is our responsibility to use state and tuition dollars effectively and efficiently.” A recent half-day on-campus workshop presented by the National Association of College and University Business Officers outlined the national financial challenges as well as those specific to The W. (See page 8) “Small institutions such as ours are particularly important to the regions they serve, and we will continue to demonstrate value in everything we do,” Miller said.
“Every decision we make, whether at the classroom, college or university level should reflect our stewardship of state and tuition dollars and our service to our students and our region. To fulfill our mission, The W must remain financially sustainable.”
Responsibility also means listening to and responding to the needs of changing student demographics, Miller said. “The average age of a student at The W is 25, many working fulltime. We must continue to find creative ways to allow working adults educational opportunities at the university. Traditional models are being challenged as student populations change.”
She pointed to the success of the RN to BSN program in the College of Nursing and Health Sciences as an example. “Working nurses are able to continue to work while completing classwork online to earn a degree in one year,” she said. Other areas of the university are using a similar model or a hybrid classroom-online delivery to respond to student needs. “We must be creative in meeting students where they are,” Miller said.
The Strategic Enrollment Planning Council, co-chaired by Dr. Scott Tollison, provost and vice president for academic affairs, and Dr. Jennifer Miles, vice president for student affairs and enrollment management, is composed of representatives from around campus and has worked to set goals and strategies designed to enhance student retention and student recruitment. “We not only want students to see The W as a preferred higher education institution because of our quality, but we want them to be with us through completion of their degree programs,” Miller said. “This is a university priority, and it is our responsibility to help our students succeed.”
Finally, Miller said, “We also have a responsibility to each other to listen, discuss and plan.” She has announced the formation of a faculty-staff working group charged with developing and implementing plans that “celebrate our common purpose. There is much to celebrate about who we are as an institution.”
In the world of higher education, she pointed out, nothing remains static. “Institutions that thrive are adaptable, positive and responsible. I believe these qualities define our university, and working together, I look forward to seeing us embrace our future with all of its possibilities.”