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Person of the Year: Missouri State President Clif Smart

Missouri State University President Clif Smart is on a mission to raise the profile of Missouri’s second largest university, and his efforts are paying off.

By Ettie Berneking

Nov 2019

Missouri State University President Clif Smart
Photo by Brandon AlmsIf you ask Smart how he ended up on the second floor of Carrington Hall, he’ll tell you that he actually didn’t want the job. Purchase Photo

Important question: When college football or college basketball season starts, do you root for Truman or Boomer? Or someone else entirely? For many Missouri natives, the University of Missouri has and always will be the state’s flagship school. But one maroon-wearing, boomer-cheering Springfieldian hopes to one day change that—or least he hopes to rival MU. With Clif Smart as president of Missouri State University, the Bears have set enrollment records in seven of the past eight years. In 2019, the university celebrated its largest increase in state funding. Campus facilities have been updated; tuition increases have been minimal; and, if you ask president Smart, lawmakers in Jeff City have a new respect for Boomer the Bear. Arguably, Smart’s eight-year tenure at the helm of MSU has been a success, and as of this past August, Smart renewed his contract through June 2026. But if you ask Smart how he ended up on the second floor of Carrington Hall, he’ll tell you he didn’t actually want the job.

Becoming President Smart

The first time the MSU board asked Clif Smart to take over as university president, it was 2011, the role was an interim position, and Smart said no. At the time, Smart was serving as general counsel for MSU, and the university’s president, James Cofer, was stepping down. When the papers were signed, and Cofer was out, the board asked Smart to step in as interim president. Smart says he laughed, “said, ‘I’m not your guy,’” suggested someone else and went home for the weekend.

Clif Smart with students at a banquet for Presidential Scholarship recipients
Photo by Kevin White/MSUSmart met with students at a banquet for Presidential Scholarship recipients. These high-achieving students got to meet each other at Smart's home in Springfield.

Smart worried he wasn’t the right fit. He worried he didn’t have the right experience and that he didn’t understand how the academic system worked. He also worried about his work/life balance if he took the job. Before becoming general counsel at MSU, Smart spent 15 years as a trial lawyer at Strong-Garner-Bauer where 40-hour work weeks were mere daydreams. As general counsel at MSU, his hours were more manageable. If he took the position of interim president, he knew that would change. “It’s an all-the-time job,” he says. “Suddenly you’re talking to people at church and at the grocery store.” If Smart was hesitant, the MSU board was determined, and that Saturday they were back knocking at Smart’s door.

This time around, Smart didn’t say no. He talked it over with his wife, Gail, and on Sunday he headed to see his friend and colleague Frank Einhellig, who had the academic credibility Smart felt he needed. “I said if he would be acting provost, I’ll be acting president,” Smart says. So that Monday at 9 a.m., with Einhellig at his side, Smart was introduced as interim president. That was June 27, 2011, and Smart has been university president ever since.

A Financial Win For MSU

Today, Smart looks at home in his office. His shelves are cluttered with awards and memorabilia, and his schedule has become routine. Mondays are spent meeting with the Administrative Council, which helps Smart navigate the big picture goals and challenges that lie ahead. Over the years, many of those challenges have changed with one exception: the need to balance the budget.

Missouri State is not alone in this struggle. Public universities across the country have watched their state funding get slashed. At MSU, one-third of the operating budget comes from state funding, and over the last few years, the state legislature has put higher education on the chopping block. Missouri ranks 45th in the country when it comes to its per capita fiscal support for higher education. In 2019, Missouri dropped even lower to 46th in the country—that’s according to Grapevine, a research program housed through Illinois State University, that publishes annual compilations on state tax support for higher education.

Clif Smart speaking at the State of the University address in Plaster Student Union Theater in 2015
Photo by Bob Linder/MSUSmart spoke at the State of the University address in Plaster Student Union Theater in 2015. Over the years, Smart has helped guide the university's growth.

In 2018, then Missouri Governor Eric Greitens recommended a $68 million reduction in higher education spending. When news of the proposed cuts broke, several state universities and colleges voiced their concerns in Jeff City. The outcry got the attention of lawmakers, who voted in May 2019 to approve a state budget that restored $30 million in funding for higher education. It also meant MSU was getting a $10 million bump in state funding. Smart has been quoted saying this is the largest increase in state funding in university history. It’s a huge success for Smart, who spends a chunk of his time each year in Jeff City advocating for higher education and who has worked during his tenure to improve the university’s reputation among lawmakers.

Now a year later, MSU unveiled its next step in it’s funding endeavors: In October on Homecoming weekend, the university announced Onward, Upward, a historic $250 million capital campaign, headed by alumnus and actor John Goodman.

Last year’s $10 million and this historic campaign doesn’t just signify new respect for Boomer. It also means Smart can continue to keep tuition increases at a minimum.

Keeping Tuition Down

For many students, tuition hikes have become the norm, but Smart has tried to limit those hikes. “In the first eight budget cycles I’ve been here, our tuition increases have been less than inflation,” he says. In comparison, Missouri Southern State University will see a 9.3 percent tuition increase for the 2019–2020 school year, and students at Northwest Missouri State University will see a 4.8 percent increase in tuition during the 2019–2020 academic year.

Clif Smart welcoming students to MSU campus on Move in Day
Photo by Kevin White/MSUSmart welcomes new students on Missouri State University’s annual Move in Day where students unload their cars in front of their new residence halls.

At the University of Missouri, tuition for the 2019–2020 school year is increasing 5 percent at all four campuses—in Kansas City, Columbia, St. Louis and Rolla. Before the state legislature rejected Greitens’ proposed spending cuts, MSU did the same thing and announced it was looking at having to increase tuition by 5.07 percent. It would have been the highest tuition increase in 10 years, but when the state’s final budget was approved and cuts to higher ed were avoided, MSU gave a sigh of relief and slashed its tuition and fee increase to 2.87 percent. Smart even announced this past August that the university was dropping the $35 application fee, in hopes of “leveling the playing field.”

Smart says two-thirds of the university’s operating budget comes from fees and tuition, so a hike in tuition would mean more money for the university, but Smart has instead focused his efforts on increasing the university’s revenue by increasing enrollment.

A Surge in Enrollment

MSU has set new fall enrollment records in seven of the past eight years, which could arguably be the biggest win for Smart. His shelves of awards and honors don’t include one for Best Enrollment, but maybe it should. In 2018, fall enrollment reached 24,390 students at the Springfield campus. It was a record high and put MSU not far behind MU, which welcomed 29,866 students during its 2018 fall enrollment. That bump in the student body means two things for Smart. It means more money in the budget, and it means the university is competing with Mizzou for students’ interest. “My goal is not to become the new flagship,” he says. “The goal is to be a robust second state-wide university... and raise our profile.”

Smart’s efforts seem to be paying off. Business is the No. 1 draw at MSU. In fact, with 5,200-plus students studying business, MSU has the largest business school not just in Missouri, but in the surrounding states. On top of that, Smart says one in eight teachers in Missouri get their credentials at MSU. “We produce more teachers than any university in the state,” he says. Add in the health care track and musical theater programs, and you’ve got a school on the up and up.

Clif Smart speaking at the New Student Convocation on August 21, 2016, at JQH Arena
Photo by Jesse Scheve/MSUSmart spoke at the New Student Convocation on August 21, 2016, at JQH Arena. Interfacing with students is one of Smart's favorite roles as president.

The boost in state funding and the surge in enrollment are all part of Smart’s big picture plan for the university, and part of why MSU’s reputation has grown outside of the Queen City. In 2018, the Bears lured basketball coach Dana Ford away from Tennessee State, and Carmelita Jeter, aka “the fastest woman alive” joined the track and field coaching staff a few months later in August. For Smart, hires like that improve the university’s reputation even more, which, hopefully, draws the attention of other potential faculty members and potential students.

It’s All Part of the Job

Giving the university’s reputation a boost and advocating for state funding is just half of Smart’s job. It’s what he refers to as the “external” part of the job—the part he likes most. These tasks include promoting the university in Jeff City, raising its reputation through community engagement and philanthropy, and meeting with students and engaging with them through his weekly Clif Notes, through his Instagram videos and on Twitter. Yes, President Smart is on Twitter, and he’s not half bad.

Clif and Gail Smart at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City
Photo by Kevin White/MSUClif has converted his wife, Gail—who is a Razorback alumna—to a Bears fan, though she still roots for her Arkansas team.

With his wife, Gail, along for the ride, the all-consuming job of university president becomes a little less daunting for Smart. When the pressure becomes too much, he migrates south to Florida where he can unplug and be totally anonymous for a few days and return to work refreshed, and maybe a little tanned.

Eight years in, the job has gotten a little easier, but change is slow. Luckily, slow and steady is the speed Smart prefers. “Jim Baker has been here 20-plus years, and he gave me some good advice,” Smart says. “You interact with people who want change, and when you show success, more people want to interact with you.” And that, as Smart sees it, is how he’ll make lasting impacts at MSU, whether it’s building a new recreation center, raising the university’s profile or increasing enrollment.

MSU Kicks Off Largest Fundraiser in its History

The Onward, Upward campaign set a $250 million fundraising goal, which could change the future for the university.

In case you missed the big news—and John Goodman’s visit to the Missouri State University campus—Boomer has launched the biggest fundraising endeavor in MSU history. It’s dubbed the Onward, Upward campaign, and it’s goal is to raise $250 million to benefit the university. Announced in October during Homecoming weekend, the deadline for this lofty campaign is December 2022, which gives MSU three years to fill its coffers. But MSU President Clif Smart isn’t worried. He has a plan.

Actually, he’s been working on that plan for several years. It all started when the university’s budget started changing. Two decades ago, two-thirds of MSU’s operating budget came from state funds. Now, only one-third comes from state funds. This makes private support more important than ever in moving the university forward. “As we look forward,” Smart says, “we know our state has a limited ability to robustly fund higher education. So it is important that private support becomes richer.”

When talking about private financial support, Smart isn’t just talking about MSU alum. He’s also talking about community leaders who see the impact the university has on Springfield’s business sector. “It’s way beyond alumni,” Smart says. “Bryan Magers is not an alum, but he gave the lead gift to the Mager’s Health and Wellness Center. The same is true for the Davis-Harrington Welcome Center where only one of the four people involved is an alum.” So how do you increase public interest in the university? For starters, you team up with a big-name alum like John Goodman. When Smart filled him in on plans for the Onward, Upward campaign, which includes a permanent structure for Tent Theatre, Goodman loved the idea. He now serves as chairman of the campaign.

Beyond supporting Tent Theatre, that $250 million will be funneled to four main focuses: program support, student support, faculty support and facilities. That includes increasing facility and equipment support for the Darr College of Agriculture with three new buildings, a degree completion fund to help students financially when they fall on difficult times, the creation of a student-managed investment fund that will offer hands-on investment training, new student scholarships, the creation of new faculty positions and much more.

It’s an ambitious goal to say the least, but already, MSU has raised more than $151 million. Smart attributes that early success to the rise in the university’s reputation. Enrollment is up, graduation numbers are up, graduate degree offerings are increasing, and people are paying more attention to MSU in Jefferson City and across the state. As Smart sees it, the time is right to launch a campaign like Onward, Upward. “I really think this will be the most transformational thing to happen to the university while I’m president,” he says. If everything goes according to plan, Onward, Upward could change the trajectory of the university for years to come.

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