|Originally published April 9, 2006
Reprinted from The (Monroe, LA) News-Star
ULM thrives under Cofer’s direction
|When Deborah Cofer first saw the University of Louisiana at Monroe campus, ULM President James Cofer said her first comment was a simple understated, “Oh my.”
There is no question the university was struggling when Cofer first took office March 28, 2002. There was enrollment decline, building deterioration, audit problems, budget deficits and accreditation concerns. With a reputation for strong fiscal management, Cofer was hired to clean up the campus literally and metaphorically.
That is when one of Cofer’s self-described best attributes to observe and understand what was occurring came in handy. It is the “coup d’oeil,” or power of the glance, that aided him, he said.
“I couldn’t be single-focused because there were a cornucopia of issues to be addressed,” Cofer said. “But I didn’t know there were that many.”
He hit the ground running, making changes while learning to be a university president simultaneously.
“Nothing prepares you for being a president,” Cofer said. “It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in higher education. I knew the business of the business, and I knew the finances of higher ed.
“But I think the enormity and time requests were surprising.”
Early on, he and Deborah attended virtually every campus and community event and reached out to the public, students, faculty and staff. They even painted on campus on Saturdays as part of a campuswide cleanup program.
Four years later, the campus is much cleaner and new apartment-style housing is blossoming all over campus a chief concern for students when he was hired. Outsourcing housing, food services and the bookstore to private companies were key for growth and saving funds, he said.
Now, enrollment, test scores, student retention and alumni donations are all on the rise. There are plenty of challenges that remain, but much has been accomplished.
The university even has a new mascot as of Wednesday the Warhawks.
State Sen. Robert Barham, R-Oak Ridge, said one sure sign ULM is on the right track is the lack of negative comments made from Baton Rouge.
“Four years ago, we were having to battle the perception ULM was not well run,” Barham said. “The state was reluctant to commit funds. So, certainly from my perspective, the ship has been stabilized now.”
Acquiring additional funds last year to improve the flagship pharmacy program was crucial, he said.
With the pharmacy school getting more funds and a new building, there is some jealousy on campus, said Ronald Hill, associate professor of pharmacy, but it must be funded properly for ULM to thrive.
“If I’m elsewhere on campus, I think pharmacy is getting all the attention,” he said. “But in pharmacy, I think we’re still not getting enough.”
The past four years have gone by fast, said Malcolm Maddox, ULM Foundation board member and Hibernia Bank regional chairman.
“If you stop and think about it, you can really see what all has been done on that campus,” Maddox said.
ULM had lots of problems before Cofer was hired, but the university was not in the “hopeless tailspin” some believed, Maddox said. ULM needed strong leadership, and Cofer has been a “phenomenal hire,” Maddox said.
ULM is moving in the right direction and remains a vital engine for the region. The loss of State Farm would pale in comparison to losing ULM, Maddox said.
But, because of Cofer’s fiscal and not primarily academic background, much of the faculty was concerned even before he was hired, said Anna Hill, ULM Faculty Senate president in the 2001-2002 academic year.
“But the faculty was very willing to work with him,” she said.
The first year went very well, she said, but then faculty began questioning some decision-making from the president’s and provost’s offices.
Issues have arisen from last year’s reorganization plan that cut the pay of department heads and moved secretaries out of many offices to this year’s loss of the occupational therapy program. There is a new reorganization committee that Anna Hill wishes proves effective.
But there are other plans Cofer has recently proposed to increase the voices of faculty, staff and students through a shared governance committee.
Cofer said he has always listened to student and faculty concerns, but there is a better communication structure being implemented now. Great faculty members have been hired in the last few years, he said, even without being able to offer the salaries they deserve.
More decisions required fast action in the past. Now is the time for more thoughtful and discretionary decision-making, Cofer said.
Ronald Hill, a faculty senator, said Cofer has met many challenges, but many still remain.
He has been critical of the administration’s attentiveness to the Faculty Senate at times. But ULM needed a leader, he said, and Cofer has done that.
“You couldn’t pay me 10 times what he makes and get me to do his job,” Ronald Hill said.
ULM was riding a wave of momentum last summer, Cofer said, but then Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit. Then a $2.2 million budget cut followed that must still be budgeted for in future years, and none of that could be taken from the pharmacy school to keep accreditation.
Then ULM opted not to spend extra funds to move toward a master’s of occupational therapy as required for accreditation, stirring deep emotions, Cofer said. Then came the mascot issue.
“Then you just go, ‘It’s been a very interesting year,’” Cofer said. “In higher education, there is no day-to-day.”
You fight battles, he said, but you always have to be moving forward.
Next fall, preparation for 2009 re-accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools becomes a priority. So you never get a long break, he said.
Despite challenges that lie ahead, Bob Levy, local Board of Regents board member, said ULM has seen substantial improvement academically and intangibly, on campus and in the community.
Now, ULM, like many other institutions, must learn to evolve and compete more as competition increases, “not just up and down the I-20 corridor but on the world corridor,” Levy said.