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New MSU president embracing western Kentucky

BY LAUREN P. DUNCANlduncan@paducahsun.com

New Murray State University President Robert "Bob" Davies hasn't been in Kentucky two weeks, and he's already expanded his taste for barbecue.

Davies began his first day on the job Monday after moving from La Grande, Ore., where he was president of Eastern Oregon University for the past five years. His wife, Cindy, and daughter, Katie, made the move with Davies on July 4, where they've been settling into their new home in Murray.

"I love it, the people are absolutely outstanding," he said. "The extremely warm reception that we received here, in Murray and in Paducah, has been phenomenal."

Davies has already visited the MSU Paducah Regional Campus Crisp Center. While unpacking boxes at his new home Friday, he overheard an announcement for a barbecue judging at the Paducah campus the following day.

Davies, who said he's a backyard BBQ-er himself, said he learned a few things about barbecue taste and tenderness. 

"When you think about western Kentucky ... it's about these types of things that are out there ... there are so many fun things to do," he said.

Similar to Davies' spontaneous visit to the Crisp Center, he and his family have been getting to know Murray better by attending events such as the Freedom Fest Parade, visiting the farmers market and making a trip to Dairy Queen, where's he's met with students.

The new administrator has plans to socialize on campus as he has in the community. He's starting his days with 5:30 a.m. walks around the campus, where he said he encounters some students and staff.

"At 5:30 in the morning, there's a lot of people walking this campus," he said. "It's great, people are very friendly. It's small-town American, which I really enjoy."

This is the first time Davies has lived in the Midwest. He's worked previously in Pennsylvania, New York and Idaho. MSU's diversity, he said, makes it a hub for different cultures.

"What I like about Murray State is it's large enough where it attracts a majority of our students from the five-state region, but we also attract nationally and internationally. So you can take a student from Mayfield, who's basically been born and raised in this area, and then have him or her come to Murray State and experience all of these different cultures and different thoughts within the safety net of their own culture," he said.

Getting started

Davies' first day on the job included a lot of communication with staff and students about what they'd like to see at MSU. He met with two local high school superintendents; visited the Winslow Dining Hall to talk to students; met with the enrollment management team, senior staff, and facility staff members; and talked with State Rep. Kenny Imes.

He also sent out an email Monday to all faculty, staff and students, in which he encouraged the campus community to approach him if they see him around campus and have any questions or comments.

"One of the things I really enjoy is getting to know the students and getting to know their stories and know why they selected Murray State, what they enjoy about Murray State, what keeps them coming back and what things we need to change," he said.

He said he's already received several responses to the email, many of which highlighted MSU's attributes.

One challenge Davies said was expressed in response to his email was the need for faculty members of the different colleges on campus to work together, which he said he hopes to address.

While Davies is taking in a lot of information and adjusting to the new job, he's also forming some goals for the university.

One short-term challenge he said the school faces is its deferred maintenance. Many universities around the country are facing structural challenges with facilities as they age.

"That will be a challenge that we'll need to take head-on very quickly and aggressively over the next year or two, something we're going to work with the legislators on," he said.

Davies said Ives was forthright in their meeting Monday in saying that it's going to be a tough year for higher education funding from the state, which means the school will be limited in what it can request.

Public funding for universities may be limited, but Davies said MSU has been lucky to have the generous support of alumni and private support.

"There is a lot of private support for this institution, and that, too, will be on my agenda over the next week or so, visiting with some of those individuals and making phone calls across the country. It's important we maintain the relationships with our alumni and supporters, because public higher education is dependent obviously on public support, but more and more on private support," he said.

Another short-term goal Davies has set is to work with enrollment management to not just see more students enroll, but to help them graduate on time and without enormous financial burdens.

"That is something we are hitting hard right away," he said.

For the longer term, Davies is hoping to form a strategic planning process with the Board of Regents, and what Davies calls an "envisioning process" to articulate the direction of MSU.

He said although the university has had budget cuts over recent years, so have other universities across the country.

"In this time of ambiguity in higher education, we are in a very, very positive position to move forward," he said.

Davies has full-day agendas planned for the upcoming weeks around western Kentucky including Henderson, Madisonville and Paducah, where he'll be speaking at chamber events and Rotary clubs, plus hosting open houses for alumni and students.

And come September, Davies said he's looking forward to visiting Paducah and using his new tasting skills at the Barbecue on the River.  

Contact Lauren Duncan, Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8692 or follow @laurenpduncan on Twitter.

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