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June 2012
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MSU president favors presence in Paducah

BY LAUREN P. DUNCANlduncan@paducahsun.com

MSU's new president wants to see the university further its outreach in western Kentucky.

That was one of the goals Dr. Robert Davies shared in his visit to Paducah and McCracken County on Wednesday during a full day of meetings with community leaders, alumni and students. Davies started as the 13th president of MSU on July 14.

He started his day at a Paducah Area Chamber of Commerce breakfast where McCracken County Judge-Executive Van Newberry and Paducah Commissioner Sandra Wilson declared Wednesday MSU Day. Wilson said she was glad to see Davies - who had visited Paducah twice before since moving to Murray - was getting to know the community.

"We're so happy to know the road is burning back and forth," she said.

Many of Davies' conversations with local leaders centered around the MSU-Paducah Regional Campus Crisp Center, which he said he expects will see significant growth. He pointed out there is space at the campus site for two more buildings, though there are no plans to build a dormitory at the center because its enrollment is primarily nontraditional students.

But Davies said MSU will continue to look at expanding programs in Paducah.

"We will continue to meet with civic leaders, the community and students ... and as those needs arise, we will meet those demands," he said.

Davies said in a visit to The Sun that the development of critical thinking skills in higher education is a growing need as technology has allowed students to readily access much of the information they need. While college education was once largely about finding information, now it's more about learning how to use it. Thus, Davies has already been meeting with the university's deans about how to best utilize the university's resources.

In his first two weeks on the job, he's had several conversations about enrollment. While MSU has seen steady enrollment increases over the past five years, Davies said he's not focused on just boosting enrollment but also on decreasing the dropout rate and helping more students who start at MSU get their degrees. 

"We want to make sure we grow in the right way," he said.

He said MSU's Board of Regents expects growth, but he also wants to make sure the culture of MSU, especially the good connection between faculty and students, remains strong.

"If we all of the sudden grow to an amazing number, would we lose that sense of community?" he said. "If we grow, we need to make sure we do it in the right manner."

Also in his discussions about enrollment, Davies said it's important to keep tuition affordable.

Davies supports a performance-based funding system, where colleges and universities receive public funding based on student achievement. He's not in favor of all elements in place elsewhere, however, such as basing university funding in part on the incomes of the graduates.

One way Davies hopes to see MSU grow is by drawing more students from the Paducah area. Murray State has 4,584 alumni from McCracken County and 751 current students from the county. When he met with McCracken County Schools Superintendent Quinn Sutton and Paducah Independent Schools Superintendent Donald Shively on Wednesday morning, Davies asked,  "How do we get more students from your schools?"

Both superintendents said one way is to increase dual-credit opportunities in their high schools. Teachers need further education to be qualified to teach dual-credit classes, and Davies said he is open to looking at ways MSU could offer those extra classes for teachers.

The three school leaders also discussed the high schools utilizing MSU's connection with foreign countries and study abroad programs to integrate new curricula, such as a Mandarin Chinese foreign language course, in the future. Nearly 1,000 of MSU's 11,000 students are international students.

Davies raised the idea of MSU reaching out to local high schools by having students visit the campus in group trips. He said many youths are more familiar with the university through attending athletic events rather than having any real sense of its academics.

"I would love to see a way to get our kids connected before they graduate," Shively said.

One youth who has said she wants to attend MSU is Davies' own daughter, 13-year-old Katie, who brought up Murray State before he learned about the position opening.

At a Rotary Club luncheon Wednesday, Davies shared with about 100 attendees that when he and his family lived in Oregon last year, Katie was completing a project on what she wants to be when she grows up: a leader at Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. She told her dad that Murray State was the school that best suits the career ambition.

A week later, he got a call that he was nominated to apply for the MSU position.

One thought Davies has shared with people during his two weeks on the job, including Wednesday's Rotary lunch, is his vision to further what the three stars on MSU's coat of arms shield represent: hope, endeavor and achievement.

"When we think about what MSU stands for, it's about achievement," he said. "It's about the university working with communities to achieve ... it's about closing the gap between the haves and the have-nots."

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

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