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MSU finalist promotes diverse opportunities

BY KATHLEEN FOX kfox@paducahsun.com

MURRAY - The second of two Murray State presidential finalists took his turn in the spotlight Tuesday as he described his core educational beliefs and answered questions about how he would add his personal stamp if selected to lead the university.

James Smith, president of Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.D., participated in an open forum Tuesday afternoon in Wrather Auditorium. The self-titled "small town guy" set out several of his beliefs about higher education and the role of a university. Smith said he would love to end his career after a decade or so of service to Murray State.

He said his goals would be to grow academic programs, provide additional scholastic opportunities for students, build on a solid donor base that would make budget cuts unnecessary and turn the school from a "hidden gem" to a "sparkling diamond."

Smith views  a university as a place for exploration, growth and intellectual inquiry, one that serves its students first and works to shape their dreams, a curriculum driven by the faculty, a global society with diverse students from across the world and a place for fun.

"Higher education is the best economic development tool any state can point to," he said.

He said the proudest moments for any university president should be seeing students graduate despite low family income or college entrance exam scores .

Smith answered questions from faculty, staff, students, alumni and community members ranging from the importance of the honors college, the challenges in maintaining or growing enrollment, international studies, diversity, student internships and graduate assistantships, residential and dining services, the residential college structure, academic programs, military and veteran affairs, possible tuition increases, the role of the president, and athletics.

He referenced his work with strategic enrollment at Northern State University in finding students across the nation and internationally. Smith said he believes in a multi-cultural education and in an ideal world each Murray student would travel abroad. Because that dream could prove difficult, he said the idea of "bringing the world to Murray" is feasible. He also emphasized his support for inclusivity of all groups within the university.

"The world is a global environment and it's meaningful for students to be part of the global society," he said. "The president's role is to tell that story."

He said the school has lost opportunities to gradually raise tuition over time and to juggle what is necessary for the school and what students can afford. Smith said he would not oppose a possible maximum tuition increase of about 3.5 percent.

Smith said much of higher education is "risk adverse" and he is a believer that risk taking is worthwhile even if it doesn't always succeed. He described himself as passionate about student engagement and infrastructure improvements and someone "not without ideas."

He emphasized the importance of fundamental skills such as pubic speaking, writing and teamwork, and the bond formed from a shared experience among students. Smith said he believes in a sensible balance among service, teaching and research in a way that is tailored to the strengths of the instructor.

Athletics in the context of higher education are along with fine arts one of the "front porch activities" that draw attention of potential students, according to Smith. He said the idea of cutbacks in the athletic department are tricky given its importance in recruitment, pointing to the recent NCAA tournament success for the Murray State men's basketball team.

Smith said he believed Murray State could tell its story online or two-dimensionally in a more effective way that reflects the high level of student discourse and attention to detail on campus.

The Board of Regents interviewed both men during closed sessions on Tuesday. The board will meet for its quarterly session at 8:15 a.m. today.

Contact Kathleen Fox, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8651 or follow @kathleendfox on Twitter.

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