Marianne Inman will retire as president of Central Methodist University in June, after 18 years in the job. Under her leadership, the Fayette, Mo.-based school has seen a five-fold increase in students (to 5,300), tripled its endowment (to $31 million) and completed three capital campaigns. It’s also gone from “Central
Methodist College” to “Central Methodist University.” Dr. Inman has emphasized the school’s ties to the UMC, and served as president of the denomination’s University Senate.
She answered questions from managing editor Sam Hodges.
How did a French professor end up as a college president?
Language is the core of everything that humans think and do, and I’ve often felt that people who were interested in language and communication could move into pretty much any field they wanted to move in. We have among our alums, for example, English majors who are lawyers and bankers. A discipline having to do with language and communication is very versatile and can prepare one for interests as they proceed in life.
Can you summarize the challenges you faced when you took over Central Methodist, and what were your first moves?
Anyone who knew the institution at that time would say there certainly were financial challenges. We had been operating in a deficit mode for several years. And I knew we had to get out of that mode, because one can’t operate like that. We did, in that first year. We were very fortunate to be the recipients of a sizeable bequest, something approximating $1 million. We could have, I suppose, spent it on something that would be immediately visible, and yet our chief financial officer and I felt that getting us into a stable financial position was the most important priority. So we applied that to the debt and we worked very hard to prepare a reasonable budget. And so we got out of debt the first year and we haven’t seen any debt like that since.
Another area that needed immediate attention was strategic planning. So we put together a large team: faculty, staff, students. The articulation of our mission in the past was rather lengthy. I didn’t feel it was as crisp or understandable as it might be, so we crafted a statement of mission. We have a statement of institutional values. We have an educational purposes statement, highlighting the importance of our church relationship. Those constitute, still today, our core documents. We’ve altered the language of our mission statement a little as we’ve become a university. But basically those continue to be what guide the institution and what has led us to accomplish some rather dramatic results.
When you look back at your tenure, what do you see as the key accomplishments? Would it be becoming a university?
Well, that’s a major piece. The reason that we recommended, in 2004, that the board approve the change of name was that we had moved into graduate education. We have become, I like to say, the CMU System around Missouri because we now have a degree completion partnership with every one of the state’s 13 two-year public colleges. We were the pioneers in that. In 1989 we had the first one, and just this past fall we signed the last two.
We have grown tremendously in enrollment in this almost 18 years. We have transformed the main Fayette campus. My vision when I came was to bring the quality of the living and learning environments up to the quality of the academic and co-curricular programs, which always had been strong. It’s very hard to sell a concept of excellence if people come to campus and do not see what they perceive to be excellence. So we’ve done this through renovation, through new construction, through constant working at different maintenance issues. Most people, especially alums who haven’t been here for a while, are just quite amazed and thrilled at the appearance of the campus.
How did Central Methodist form partnerships with the public two-year schools of Missouri?
I have to give credit to my predecessor, Joe Howell, who in 1989 started the first one. Mineral Area College was looking for a four-year partner and had investigated one or two other possibilities. Those were not proceeding. Dr. Howell looked at that as a remarkable opportunity and pursued it. The second program started, under him, with East Central College. The rationale, of course, is that one is extending educational opportunities to learners who might not otherwise have an opportunity to pursue the bachelor’s degree, and also master’s, because we offer those at each of our locations. We saw it certainly as a way to extend Central Methodist’s influence around the state. Certainly from a business perspective, this has been highly productive for everybody who’s involved.
Private colleges seem to face so much competition, from less-expensive state schools to for-profit schools that don’t have a lot of the infrastructure costs associated with traditional education. We’ve had one UM-affiliated school close and another go into bankruptcy in the last two years. What must private colleges do to survive?
From a purely business perspective, one has got to have diversified revenue streams, especially for small colleges that might be in rural areas where the population base is not large. One has to take education to where learners are. Central Methodist, whose main campus is in Fayette, Mo., a town of 2,688 people, faced that exact challenge.
One way we have diversified is by moving into these partnerships with these other colleges. Another way is online. A lot of schools are doing that. Our online programs have just absolutely exploded in popularity.
One must just always be looking for ways to serve additional students. Given the way things work, when one serves additional students, there normally are additional revenues attached to that.
You were quoted recently as saying you wanted to be president of a UMC-related university, adding “that’s what I know, believe in and feel.” Would you elaborate on that?
I spent 11 years at Alaska Pacific University, which is a United Methodist-related school in Anchorage. And I am a United Methodist. Actually, I had taught quite briefly before Alaska at (UM-affiliated) Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. So I was certainly familiar with the United Methodist system of education, the fundamental values and beliefs. These accord with my own personal faith and beliefs.
The college where I was immediately before this—Northland College—is related to the United Church of Christ. That’s fine. It’s a wonderful college, and I certainly grew there and appreciated my experience there. But there’s a different denominational relationship in the more-or-less congregational system.
Did you move pretty early to strengthen Central Methodist’s ties to the UMC, and if so, how did you do that?
When I arrived, there was a person in the position—director of church relations. We don’t have that position currently but we have more people involved in various relationships with the church. So that has just gotten stronger. But the person who was in that position told me right off, probably the first day I was here, “You know, you really need to work on relationships with the church.”
There had been some controversy over conference-level funding in the apportionment system. The conference was wrestling with its own priorities, with where United Methodist-related higher education fit into all of that. There had apparently developed some disconnect or even disharmony between some folks within the conference level and local churches and Central. I thought, my goodness, we certainly don’t want to perpetuate anything that looks as if we’re not all together on this. We certainly want to strengthen the relationship.
I thought, “Well, I want to meet a lot of people. I enjoy speaking and preaching. It’s part of what I do and who I am and what I believe.” And so I set our director of church relations on to the task of scheduling me into as many local churches as possible.
I think there have been some couple of hundred at least. That’s only 20 percent of the local churches in Missouri, but that’s a fair proportion. . . . I thought if I can just go out to the local churches, meet the folks, thank them for all they’re doing financially and in other ways—such as sending us students—then that’s what I can do immediately.
Now at the [Missouri] Conference, the budget has shifted. There is some level of support financially from the conference for Central Methodist. It’s much lower than it was. I understand all the reasons for that. We’re not unique in that regard. And yet at the same time Central Methodist has gotten stronger itself. I believe that our relationship with the annual conference is probably as strong as it has ever been, if I can judge from what staff people tell me and the response I get when I speak to Annual Conference. And mainly the response of churches is in referring their wonderful students to us.
We do have a special scholarship for United Methodist students, which is a 50 percent reduction in published tuition. It applies to the main campus, undergraduates. We’ve been very pleased by the response to that.
You have “Central Methodist Days,” too, where faculty and staff do some of that visiting of churches as well, correct?
Yes, last October, we started the first one, and we’re going to be doing another one this spring. We had people in 28 or 30 local churches.
Many schools that are officially UM-affiliated don’t seem to do much to publicize that fact. Central Methodist has “Methodist” in the name and in general seems more conspicuous in its affiliation. Do you think you’re in a special situation or do you wish that other schools would highlight their Methodist connections more than they do?
There’s a whole continuum of connectedness to the denomination, ranging from those who consider their connection “historic,” and therefore something that’s just a relic of the past, to many of us who see it as central to how we understand ourselves, how we know ourselves. My wish would be that every institution that’s listed by the University Senate is very proud of the United Methodist connection and would make that well known. Clearly, given the autonomy of institutions and the different missions and histories of them, that’s probably a very tall order.
Is it true, as has been reported, that you and your husband are retiring to Georgetown, Texas?
Yes, we are. We lived in Georgetown 30 plus years ago and liked it very much. My doctorate is from University of Texas, Austin, which is just 28 miles down the road. When we left there to go to Alaska, we said, “Well, someday we’ll be back.” Now we find that someday is right around the corner.