Like many higher education institutions around the country, Lincoln University is struggling financially.
"Just because I'm the new guy doesn't mean I'm oblivious to the talk around town and across the state — and, indeed, across the nation," Interim President Mike Middleton told LU's Fall Faculty/Staff Institute.
"These days are a bit more difficult than some we've seen — but we are making it and we will make it."
The annual institute held Tuesday aims at getting the faculty and staff ready for classes beginning soon.
Middleton noted Lincoln will survive in future years if it pays attention to the institute's theme this year, "I Am, Because We Are" — based on South African philosophy "which focuses on the bond that connects all of humanity. We have to find a way to triumph together."
Except in athletics competition and other games, he said, "There is no true victory in personal victory that comes from the intentional defeat of another. In any organization, the greatest win is that moment when we earn that win together . when we help someone achieve success."
Charles Ambrose, president of the University of Central Missouri, Warrensburg, echoed that theme in his keynote address.
Students and their families want three things from today's colleges, Ambrose said:
To open the door of access and opportunity.
To get students across the finish line with a degree.
To "make sure that those degrees align you to be competitive in both life and work when you leave college."
Ambrose emphasized college and university administrators, teachers and staff need to challenge each other to underline the message to the rest of society — that "college degrees still matter, the value of a college degree today (means) almost $1.5 million more in earning capacity."
That message is important, he added, because one of higher education's major challenges is cost.
"We hear — especially from public perception — that college costs too much, takes too long," Ambrose explained, "a degree does not equip you with the skills required to be competitive within this economy, students have to borrow too much to pay (for college)."
More important is the personal touch faculty and staff give to students, he said.
"You may never know when you're the answer to someone's prayer," Ambrose said. "But by virtue of your roles and responsibilities here on this campus, you will answer someone's prayer."
He offered examples from his own college career nearly 40 years ago.
"I cared a little bit more about my identity as a soccer player than I did as a student," Ambrose said.
He went to Furman University in South Carolina, but broke his leg during a soccer game six weeks into his freshman year.
Wearing a plaster cast from his waist down to the knee on one leg made it harder for him to get around, Ambrose said. A fellow student — who has remained a good friend — helped him shower, get food in the cafeteria and get around a large campus while using crutches.
Ambrose said he also was aided by the school's registrar and its president, who helped him re-focus his academic goals, leading to a higher education career that's included 20 years as a college president.
"That care and concern for students, that empathy that people share for each other," Ambrose said, "made that difference. And the impact of higher education, and what you do every day, transforms (and) changes lives."
Staff Council Chairman Cole Abbott said he's reminded of Lincoln's founders who, in 1866, pledged more than $6,000 (nearly $100,000 in today's money) to start the school.
"If those soldiers, who had so little, could dream and then achieve something that many people thought impossible — so can we," Abbott said.
Student Government Association President Curtis Burton III, a senior from East St. Louis majoring in criminal justice, challenged the faculty and staff "to be present (for students), to show up inside and outside of the classroom."
Faculty Senate Chair Stephanie Clark earned her bachelor's degree from Lincoln. "Many of the things I am today is because of what Lincoln gave me," she said. "I have seen amazing things our students achieve, and can't imagine being anywhere else."