After six years on the job, Missouri Higher Education and Workforce Development Commissioner Zora Mulligan is switching gears. She steps down today to take on a new role – executive vice president of Missouri State University in southwest Missouri’s Springfield.
Mulligan is one of the longest-serving commissioners of the state department.
“It’s been just a tremendous opportunity to lead the Department during this time of change and excellent leadership from Governor Parson. I think when people reflect on my time as commissioner, one of the things that will come to mind is just the record levels of investments in public higher education and workforce development that we’ve seen. We’re currently at the highest level of core funding for public higher education institutions in the last 20 years, which is tremendous. We also are at the beginning of transformational capital improvement projects on college campuses around the state, which are going to just make a huge difference both on the campuses, but also in the regions that those institutions serve,” said Mulligan.
She also pointed to the expansion of programs, like the MO Excels Grant Program. It allows institutions to create or expand programs that lead to work in high wage, high demand occupations.
Mulligan said there has also been a lot of investments in people.
“Whether it’s making sure that the A+ Scholarship Program maintained full funding, the first time in anybody’s recent memory that Access Missouri, our need- based financial aid program has been fully funded, all the way to Fast Track, which is the basically expansion of A+ to include adults who want to go back to again complete a degree in a program that leads to high wage, high demand occupations,” she said.
Mulligan reflects on her first day on the job to her last day as commissioner. She made several goals when she took over and she’s proud of where those have landed.
“It’s a job that isn’t very precisely defined,” said Mulligan. “And so, I actually spent some time when I first took the job, looking back at what previous commissioners did, learning a lot about the history of why the Coordinating Board for Higher Education, which is the board that I report to, was established, and just kind of looking at where the opportunities were to make improvements.”
She said it’s a job that requires a lot of hard decisions.
“My team and I decided pretty early on that we were going to be willing to make hard choices,” Mulligan said. “Some examples of that are, we made some very challenging choices to allow the expansion of current technical education in Cape Girardeau recently. Similar tough choices to allow Missouri State to offer more professional doctoral degrees in Springfield. Those are very, very fraught issues within higher education. That willingness to take on the hard choices was important to me and my team.”
Another example is the financial situation facing the state’s public colleges and universities. She said they advocated strongly for the financial support for those institutions, as well as the programs and the student financial aid programs that go along with them.
According to Mulligan, another tough choice made early on was thinking more broadly about what students need to be successful after high school.
“There has been historically a really, really strong focus on bachelor degree preparation. And that’s a really, really important part of the overall package of workforce development. But we realize that there’s also a group of students who need access to shorter term training programs, and they need to have the financial support associated with those kinds of programs. So, you know, a willingness to step back and look more broadly about what success looks like after high school was another important goal,” she said. “I definitely think that we have made some important strides and I’m really, really proud of the work the department has done. I’m extremely grateful for the support of the General Assembly and Governor Parson because they’ve been vital partners in all of this.”
She said there are great options available for all kinds of learners.
“Whether it’s someone who’s really interested in doing hands on learning through an apprenticeship program, or through a lab oriented bachelor’s degree program, or someone who’s really interested in learning more about languages in the classics, there are great programs at colleges and universities across the state,” said Mulligan. “I think that when people think, ‘Am I college material’, they may be envisioning one kind of narrow path, when really their are great choices that they should be encouraged to consider and lots of financial resources available to help with that journey.”
What will Mulligan miss?
“The people, the people, the people. I really have been blessed to work with a great team, both in the department and also across state government. I’ve also really enjoyed the opportunity to serve in a statewide role and to get to know people across the state. Institutions and communities across the state have very different needs and I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to get to know all those people and all of those interests,” she said.
The interim commissioner will be a longtime leader of the department – Leroy Wade, who has been serving as a deputy commissioner. Mulligan says the Coordinating Board for Higher Education is expected to hire her replacement in a few months.
To listen to the Show Me Today interview with Mulligan, click below.
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