Commissioner of Missouri Higher Education reflects on time in office

Friday, November 13, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 12:32 a.m. CST, Friday, November 13, 2009
Robert Stein, commissioner for the Missouri Department of Higher Education, laid out potential cuts to education in a letter to public college officials, he estimated the state would lose nearly $1 billion in two years when federal stabilization funds expire.

JEFFERSON CITY — Upon taking office, Robert Stein said morale within the Missouri Department of Higher Education was low, employee turnover was high and communication between other departments wasn't very effective.

Stein announced earlier this year he intends to retire in June 2010. He said during his three years as the department's commissioner, some of his achievements include increasing interdepartmental communication and cooperation among the Higher Education Department, its governing board and the General Assembly.

"They all come with different viewpoints," Stein said. "It was important to develop a strategy to understand common interests — to have creative, innovative solutions. Communication stumbling blocks prevent the development of positive policy works."

Stein also has tried to remedy the high turnover. Since he took office in 2006, employee turnover has decreased by 28 percent, according to numbers provided by the department.

Within the hierarchy of state government, Stein holds the top higher education position. He sits on Gov. Jay Nixon's Cabinet. His department evaluates student and institutional performance, sets policy and administers student financial assistance.

But the reality is, it's not as much power as it sounds. Missouri's constitution provides only limited authority to the position and gives independent authority to the various university governing boards, such as the UM System Board of Curators.

"Both types of boards must have the leadership and ability to work collaboratively toward systemic goals, and to use data and other evidence to influence initiatives and policy," said Stein, who has spent more than 40 years in higher education with more than half served in Missouri.

Stein has held both faculty and administrative positions in the university setting, such as assistant vice president for academic affairs and interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Northern Colorado. He also has held various positions within the Higher Education Department.

Greg Upchurch, vice chairman of the Coordinating Board for Higher Education, said Stein's ability to communicate has made him an effective commissioner.

"Robert is very strong on making every voice heard," Upchurch said. "He's a consensus builder."

Kathy Swan, former chairwoman and current member of the board, said she thinks his greatest success as commissioner was developing himself as a resource.

"If we had a question about something, within a minute or two he knew who to call," she said. "He always followed up. He has a style that really builds trust."

The Coordinating Board for Higher Education has appointed a committee that will meet sometime in December to begin the search for a new commissioner. As for his own future, Stein said he has no specific plans but might like to learn Spanish.

"I look forward to waking up and saying, 'What do I want to do before I die?'" he said. "And then I'm going to do it. I'm not afraid of tomorrow."

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