As of April 1, Millikin’s new president is on the job and ready to take the wheel as a man who has a reputation for getting things done.
As president for 10 years at his previous institution, Texas Wesleyan, Dr. Harold G. “Hal” Jeffcoat successfully overcame the challenge of inheriting a university in financial crisis and on probation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, its accrediting body. At the end of the first two years under his leadership, the budget was balanced, the school was off probation and significant strides had been made in the areas of technology, business practices and athletics. Progress continued for the next eight years and when Jeffcoat stepped down as president in spring 2010, he anticipated taking a sabbatical and then teaching some classes at his former university.
“Without question, he made truly significant contributions during his decade at Wesleyan,” Dan Boulware, Wesleyan trustee, said in the fall 2010 Wesleyan magazine. “He brought vision and focus to Wesleyan when we needed it most. He stabilized the financials, ensured proper accreditation and then went to work breathing new life into a once-tired campus.”
“During those 10 years, we completed 22 total building projects along with the day-to-day running of the university,” Jeffcoat says. “It was a tough 10 years. I was fatigued and ready to relax a bit. No one at Wesleyan believed I would really retire.”
In fact, it was one of those unbelieving Wesleyan vice presidents who contacted him about the presidential position at Millikin.
In Millikin, Jeffcoat saw a university that had none of the issues he’d faced at Texas Wesleyan, and instead was moving forward from a position of strength.
“I had other opportunities, but Millikin attracted me,” Jeffcoat says. “One of its great strengths is the university’s track record of preparing students for careers or graduate school. That’s a tremendous advantage over other schools who can’t make that claim. The credentials of the faculty are very strong, and the leadership of the institution was extraordinary, from the board of trustees to previous president Doug Zemke. All those key indicators to me were very positive.”
Jeffcoat and his wife, Marie, confirmed their observations with an unannounced visit to campus while en route to Chicago for an interview with Millikin’s search committee.
“We were taking the temperature of the campus and community,” Marie Jeffcoat says. “We sort of milled around, talked to waitresses in restaurants about Millikin, that sort of thing. Everyone was very positive, and that warmed us to the institution and the area right away.”
In April, Barry Pearson, the university’s vice president for academic affairs, told the Decatur Herald & Review that Jeffcoat brings infectious energy to the job and prizes collaboration.
“One of the things that you want in a president is someone you can be very direct and honest with, and he’s very much that way,” Pearson told the newspaper.
Honesty is also what Jeffcoat sees as a key element in the development of a new strategic plan for the university, one of the first items on his agenda following the upcoming completion of the current strategic plan.
“We need to evaluate how the previous plan has done,” he says. “We need to be completely honest with ourselves on how we measure up to competition and what we need to move forward.”
Jeffcoat also would like to see an increased focus on accessibility for students as a major component of the plan, specifically through building the scholarship endowment to help qualified students achieve their dreams of a
“I want every student who can perform academically to be able to come to Millikin,” Jeffcoat says. “I am very student focused toward ensuring accessibility to higher education and providing the elements that students need to succeed.”
Chief among those elements is hiring and retaining engaged and committed faculty and staff at Millikin.
Jeffcoat personally knows the value of a caring and challenging faculty and staff. As an undergraduate at the University of South Florida, more focused on having a career in major league baseball than the college experience, his life was changed by a professor named Jim Swanson.
“What he did was really extraordinary,” Jeffcoat says. “He took me aside one day and told me, ‘there’s more to you than just being a professional athlete. You need to discipline yourself to be a better student.’”
Swanson became a mentor for the unfocused student and showed Jeffcoat how to concentrate on his studies. It opened up options he never would have considered otherwise.
“Had I not met Jim Swanson, I would not have had a 34-year career in higher education and I would not be president of Millikin today,” he says. “He went out of his way to help a student along his life path.” Jeffcoat went on to complete his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in American history at USF, followed by his doctorate at the University of Kentucky and a law degree from the University of Leicester School of Law. He has worked at eight institutions of higher learning, including Purdue and the University of Missouri, Columbia.
“Every single faculty member at Millikin has Jim Swanson in them,” he says. “It’s the part of them that conveys to the students that they have value, they have worth. The heart and soul of an institution is primarily its faculty and staff, because a staff member can also intervene and engage a student to show they care about the students they are serving. I see it happen every day.”
He’ll have a close-up view of those life-changing events inside and outside the classroom. The Jeffcoats will be living in the Huss House, the university’s former guest house, and look forward to the increased opportunities for attending campus activities as a result of living right next door.
“We asked to live there,” Jeffcoat says. “It’s great to have that access. I think it’s important that a president take a highly visible part in the life of the institution.”
That focus on involvement also extends to the Decatur-area community.
“The office of the president needs to be engaged with the area,” Jeffcoat says.
“You can’t be a good leader for Millikin by staying ensconced in the corner office.”