Mike Middleton thinks Lincoln University has a good future, but to get there, it has to attract "every student we can get."
Students wanting to learn, of course, are the main reason colleges and universities exist as places that teach.
But, Middleton noted during a wide-ranging interview last week, student tuition and fees also help bring in the money to pay for teachers and other services.
"I think we can survive if we get more students who are being successful and being retained" until they graduate, "and paying the cost of a good education," Middleton said. "As we get that established, and it's a pleasant experience for them, our image in the community is raised.
"We'll garner more support in the community, in the Legislature (and) from our donors."
To get there, Middleton added, more people need to find ways to be on the same page about LU's history and current mission.
"There's some identity confusion with Lincoln," he explained. "Lincoln has a uniquely difficult mission to accomplish — and extremely limited resources with which to accomplish that mission."
He said LU has a lot of "really, really good and dedicated, hard-working people," but "they're all under-paid and under-resourced — and there are no immediate solutions."
Middleton has finished four months as Lincoln University's interim president — a job he accepted in May, just weeks after finishing a 15-month stint as the interim president for the four-campus University of Missouri System.
He said everybody has to focus on Lincoln's main mission: "We've got to understand that this is a university and that we're here to create a positive, safe learning environment for students who want to improve their life chances with a college degree.
"And we can't have dysfunction characterize that learning environment."
Middleton graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia, taught in its law school and served as its deputy chancellor.
Two older brothers graduated from LU in the 1960s, and two of his wife's brothers are LU graduates from the 1970s.
So he's heard stories of dysfunctional administrative problems at Missouri's first historically black college and said constant underfunding and under-staffing is at least partly to blame.
Like other Missouri colleges and universities, the state's continuing tight-budget problems create issues for Lincoln, he said, with LU relying a lot on short-term, federal grants "for most programs" — but those grants require periodic applications and reports.
Donations are another source of funding for most of the nation's colleges and universities.
"Our endowments from our alums and donors are very, very low," Middleton said, "although we appreciate everything they give us.
"It just is not huge money — certainly not the kind of money we need to run an institution well."
The small size of Lincoln's alumni group — when compared with larger schools like the University of Missouri or Springfield's Missouri State — hurts LU's ability to get lots of donations, he said.
Lincoln was founded almost 152 years ago by soldiers of the 62nd and 65th Missouri Colored Infantry units — and their white officers — at the end of the Civil War.
They envisioned a school to teach basic education — like reading, writing and arithmetic — primarily to African Americans who either were newly freed slaves by the war's end or who had been free but still denied an education by an 1847 Missouri law.
Some LU alums have made it clear Lincoln needs to keep closer — or return — to its roots, making sure it has more African American students and faculty.
Middleton, who is black, told the News Tribune: "We need more African American faculty, not just so that African American students can see role models, but so European American students can see African American professors in leadership positions, displaying intelligence and accomplishment in their fields.
"If we're ever going to get beyond this thing that we have in this country around race, these white students need to know that African American people (also) are capable people."
But, as for the student population and Lincoln's original mission of serving disadvantaged African Americans, Middleton said: "Many of the European American students that we have come from similar backgrounds — low-income families, (and where) poverty (and) drugs are conditions that many of our students have grown up in, regardless of where they come from."
Lincoln this year has a total of 2,622 students, with a racial mix much closer to 50-50 than in some past years.
Middleton said: "Seventy percent of (all students) are eligible for Pell grants," the federal program providing higher education money for those who meet certain low-income guidelines.
"They come from, and through, life experiences that are different from the life-experiences that most students at the other four-year colleges in the state have had," he said. "They're less well-prepared for college and university-level work."
Middleton told a recent Faculty Senate meeting LU's teachers "are to be commended to the yeoman's work they do in that regard," he reported. "But we all understand that it takes more to get these young people to get through a university experience.
"And it's hard work."
The university's employees — and those who support Lincoln through taxes — need to remember "these young people (also) are citizens, and education is the answer to most of the social problems we have in this country," he said. "We can't, simply, not support educating that group of people.
"That's what the institution was formed for; that's what all higher ed institutions were formed for."
Middleton was hired as interim president after Kevin Rome announced in late March he was going to be the next president of Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee, starting July 1.
The search has started for LU's next president — with hopes that person will take over next summer.
Part of Middleton's job is to help get Lincoln ready for the leadership to be provided by the next president.
"I hope to bring the faculty and staff together around the mission," he said, "getting some organizational changes made.
"And, at least, getting started on developing some alternate revenue streams — I think that's going to be through donors and increased enrollment.
"We need a steady flow of reliable money, to improve the operations of this place. And that's just not coming now."