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April 1, 2007

Cofer marks 5 years of building a new ULM

When James Cofer became the president of the University of Louisiana at Monroe five years ago, ULM needed a leader who could quickly deal with some big problems.

"When the ox is in the ditch, you have to get it out," Cofer said.

Cofer took a nearly $50,000 pay cut to accept the presidency at ULM, which came with deteriorating infrastructure, low student and community engagement, audit troubles and accreditation issues waiting in the wings.

At the time, said Louisiana Commissioner of Higher Education Joseph Savoie, ULM was not what it should have been, and Cofer has helped repair the breach.

"It was an institution under significant stress," Savoie said. "It had financial pressure. It had accreditation pressures. Its facilities were not in the best of shape. Community relations were strained, there wasn't a lot of positive spirit, and I think all of that has changed since he's been there."

University of Louisiana System President Sally Clausen said Cofer possessed critical qualities that were necessary for ULM's advancement.

"The university was in need of someone who understood budgets and finance and the value and dedication toward ensuring good management in that regard," she said.

Among other previous positions, Cofer was formerly vice president of finance and administration for the University of Missouri System in Columbia, as well as a chief financial officer for the University of Georgia System and the University of Arkansas System.

Facilities issues were rampant, Cofer said.

"We needed to create an environment that was healthy, safe and clean," Cofer said. "We started as soon as Deborah and I got here, working on the 'Reclaiming our Campus' initiative throughout that summer."

Cofer pushed through a maintenance backlog in the building and grounds department, addressed inadequate residence hall facilities

and repositioned the university to work in tandem with private companies to help alleviate the $4 million auxiliary services deficit.

"Most of the dorms were just unlivable when we got here, and that's not what our kids deserved," Cofer said.

Five years after his hiring, the campus has been virtually transformed and is much cleaner — key student concerns at the time of his arrival.

Future physical changes include the soon-to-break-ground intermodal transit facility, reworking lots along DeSiard Street and the construction of a new Student Success Center, Cofer said.

Now the university is on a track to develop its intellectual infrastructure, Cofer said.

"That's what you really want," he said. "Faculty grants are up, scholarship is up. Instructors are asking 'what's the best way to teach my subject, how can every student learn my material?'"

The university is furthering itself as a place where people learn, not just where they are taught, he said, which is an important distinction.

"Faculty and students are deeply engaged by their subjects," Cofer said. "If you come here as a serious student, we'll give you the best education in the country."

The university has undergone extensive reorganization, as well. The colleges of art and science were combined. The School of Visual and Performing Arts was formed to consolidate talent. Decision-making has been pushed down to the college level, putting budgetary power back at that level. Administrative functions have been returned to dean's offices, Cofer said.

"We want deans focusing on running the business ends of their colleges," Cofer said. "And we've found that nobody wants to go back (to the previous model.)"

Faculty budget committees determine faculty salary levels in each college, Cofer said. "That's not done anywhere else," he said.

ACT scores are up, enrollment has stabilized, endowed chairs and professorships are up and the teacher education program consistently receives good reviews, Clausen said.

On the other hand, good leaders are always looking ahead, and Cofer faces some challenges, the system president said.

"I think he's going to be focusing on our system goal, that we will exceed national graduation rate by year 2012," Clausen said. "We have a ways to go, and it's not going to be accomplished just by selective admissions. There will be strategies to impose and good leadership will make a difference. What leaders do matters greatly at a time like this."

How he shapes and forms the experience of students is important, she said.

"If we shave off one semester from the average graduation rate, we shave thousands of dollars in state costs and put students in the work force faster," Clausen said.

Cofer represents a community with strong needs for economic development and prepared graduates, she said, and "I think he'll be focusing on that as we all will in our state."

Clausen said she personally likes the new health sciences bachelor's degree.

"There is a built-in market for health science in the region," she said. "And I'm confident the program will continue to attract students with diverse health-care career goals. That's where (Cofer) needs to be going."

Some hard decisions have been made. The university has weathered hurricane-related budget constraints, a mascot change and the decision not to move to a master's program in occupational therapy, all of which stirred strong emotions, Cofer said.

Ron Hill, ULM associate professor and former faculty senator, said the decisions Cofer has had to make were such that he couldn't please everyone.

"He is making some strong motions toward shared governance, and to that I give kudos," Hill said. "I honestly think he's struggled to do right by the university and do some of the things he's had to do to keep it going.

"He has undeniably restored community support, which is essential," Hill said. Cofer's job is not one that every person can do, he added.

The pharmacy program, separated into its own college during Cofer's tenure, has been pulled back from a precipice, Savoie said.

"As a college, it was inadequate," Savoie said. "It had old facilities and a budget deficit, and was facing a loss of accreditation."

The university brought in Lamar Pritchard, current pharmacy college dean, to help clean up some of the troubles facing the state's only publicly funded pharmacy school.

"In a short period of time we've got a very modern facility, accreditation and a solid budget," Savoie said.

That turnaround can largely be credited to Pritchard, Cofer said.

"The program hadn't made the psychological advance from the bachelor's to the PharmDcq program," Cofer said. "Pritchard understood the new paradigm — he was clearly instrumental in regaining accreditation and the design of the new facilities. He was able to put things into practice."

Cofer describes the change as going from a "corner drugstore" model to producing students for "mega-hospital medical teams."

That change was not without its problems, Hill said.

"We're on a cusp," Hill said of the College of Pharmacy. "The reality is that most pharmacy schools are located at a flagship university or a medical school, and in some cases, both. It's going to be an uphill battle for a long time. That's a function of the budget and being in a regional university."

It is his responsibility as president to see that ULM gets where it wants to go, Cofer said.

"You do that by making sure people brought in are doing the right things, by asking the right questions of the people in charge," he said.

His ultimate vision is that of a student-centered learning environment, Cofer said.

"We need to back that with a credentialed, engaged faculty that works together."

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