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Higher ed commissioner led by seeking consensus, having strong vision

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 30, 2010 - After working with Missouri's colleges and universities for more than 20 years, Robert Stein has a clear idea of what he wants his legacy to be: a continued focus on a public agenda for higher education.

As usual, Stein wants to be precise, so please take note of where the word "public" appears. The emphasis should not be on public higher education, the system of state-supported schools that serve thousands of Missouri students at campuses all over the state -- too many campuses, some say.

Instead, he wants attention paid to the public's awareness of the need for a strong system of higher education to move the state and its students forward.

To help make sure that progress occurs, Stein has pushed hard in a number of areas since he joined the Department of Higher Education in 1987, working his way up through a number of jobs before becoming commissioner in 2006.

Making college more affordable, creating a seamless pipeline from pre-school to graduate school, rewarding schools for performance rather than simply enrollment, ensuring that a degree means something once students leave campus for the real world -- those are the types of issues Stein has made his top priorities.

"We have coined phrases like race to the top," he said in a recent interview. "The question is, are we racing to the top or are we racing to the bottom? What's going to affect that, when you get underneath the fact that while we're talking about X number of more degrees, there has to be something of more substance than just numbers. More numbers doesn't necessarily mean more quality."

As he has tried to bring people around to his point of view, Stein has used a combination of persistence, professionalism and a keen perception to make sure all parties are heard and all ideas are brought to the table.

"He is constantly reaching out to people and getting their assessment of situations," says David R. Russell, chief of staff of the University of Missouri system, who will serve as interim commissioner upon Stein's departure this week.

"He doesn't trust just his own instincts. He wants to get other people's opinions, so he can pull all that together. I think he has done that extraordinarily well."

Or, as Stein puts it in typically pointed fashion:

"People say, 'What do you do?' I tell them I try to get people to play together well in the sandbox. I'm a firm believer that even adversaries can find common ground if you spend enough time and look at the realities of where are we today and how can we get to a better place?"


In 1987, Stein thought getting to a better place meant moving to Missouri. He came here "for personal reasons," leaving the University of Northern Colorado, where he had chaired the department of sociology and also served as an assistant vice president for academic affairs and interim dean of arts and sciences.

The move into an entry level position at the Department of Higher Education mystified some.

"People said, 'Can you do that?'" Stein recalled. "I said, 'Why not?' I wanted to live in Missouri. People said to me, you're moving to Misery. I asked them: Have you ever been there? No. Do you know people from there? No. So where do you come off with such a negative attitude?"

As a research associate, senior associate, assistant commissioner, associate commissioner, deputy commissioner and finally commissioner, Stein honed an ability to work with schools all over the state and all over the educational spectrum, from four-year private campuses to for-profit schools and everywhere in between.

Along the way, he developed strategies for creating consensus where it didn't seem agreement would be possible.

"I learned something the hard way," he said, "which was if you are trying to build a policy from the ground up, it becomes extremely difficult to get agreement and compromise. So I came up with a strategy that I have since used, which is put a draft out there with nobody's name on it.

"Behind the scenes, use the best minds to help you. Use sounding boards and issue the documents without saying it has the imprimatur of anybody, but it gives people something to react to."

Asked about the issue that has been a frequent topic of discussion in higher education in Missouri -- does the state have too many campuses? -- Stein says that really is the wrong question. The better focus, he said, would be whether the resources available are being used in the best way.

He notes that the state has 37 colleges that train teachers, "each of them striving for greatness, each of them wanting to build a full complement of programs and certifications and degrees. Are we at a point, due to our economy, (where we need) to take a new look and say, maybe in a particular region, not every institution should be striving for greatness and we should find a way to work together."

Such collaboration may even mean that a college uses the lab facilities of a nearby high school, if the high school equipment is better.

Working together that way doesn't always come naturally, Stein said, but it often is the best course.

"We talk a lot about collaboration," he added, "but we don't have a lot of training in collaboration. I know when I went to school, I didn't have any courses in how to collaborate. As a traditional, typical male, I sure wasn't encouraged to collaborate.

"I was encouraged to compete, on an individual level and on a group level. In any entity I was part of, it was constantly a question of how do I do better and how do I win. The question becomes, what is the game, and what am I trying to win?"


Winning hasn't always been easy as Stein tried to push issues of access, affordability, campus safety and one of his pet projects, more coordination between all segments of education, from pre-schoolers to graduate students.

That movement was pushed into the spotlight earlier this year when Gov. Jay Nixon proposed merging Stein's department with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The so-called P-20 model -- from toddlers to post-graduate degrees -- died in the Legislature, at least this time around.

But Stein is convinced that it is the future of an efficient, effective educational system -- and the higher education component will become more important than ever.

"This country is at a major crossroads," he said. "Higher ed is more a topic of discussion, more a focus of attention both nationally and locally, than it has been at any time in my career. The understanding of the importance of higher ed as a driver for the future of this country is taking on additional significance."


Others in the higher education sandbox say that Stein's tenure has helped get Missouri ready to take advantage of that new position in the spotlight.

"Preparing Missouri citizens to be successful requires a stronger integration of our entire education system, from pre-school to postgraduate education," said Michael Nietzel, who recently left his post as president of Missouri State University in Springfield to become an education adviser to Nixon.

"That has been a particular emphasis of Robert's, and something he truly believes in. That would be a legacy of the influence that Robert has had."

Nietzel says Stein's style has been effective because it is inclusive.

"He begins by being very knowledgeable and well prepared on issues affecting higher education," he said. "He comes to the challenges, and the opportunities he has had to deal with, with a real understanding of both national and statewide and regional issues and how they will play out.

"He is a stickler for having an open process that allows everyone who might be affected to have a voice. That has been a hallmark of Robert's style. And he's patient, as that process unfolds, with the idea that the end product will be better for it."

Evelyn Jorgenson, president of Moberly Area Community College, said Stein’s push to include various points of view was particularly strong in bringing together varying segments of higher education.

“He encouraged two-year community colleges to talk with four-year colleges and universities,” she said. “He was very concerned about high school graduates being able to transfer on to college and university and having a smooth process.”

Once he brought the representatives of the different areas together, Jorgenson added, Stein may not have always been able to reach a compromise, but at least he started the dialogue.

"He is a great listener and a great facilitator," she said. "He has a way of drawing out of people what their concerns are, and once that information was shared, he could really facilitate discussion based on what their concerns are."

Henry Givens Jr., who has guided Harris-Stowe for decades, from a small state-supported teachers college to a university with a wider range of programs, said Stein has been supportive of the growth all along the way.

"He was there when we had one building and one degree," Givens said, "locked into a nine-acre campus in front of a housing project filled with guns and drugs. He fought for us as we went for expansion. Many other institutions in the state really did not want to see Harris-Stowe grow. They wanted it to be one building and one degree forever.

"However, Dr. Stein stuck by his commitment. He understood the importance of the inner city and a historically black college campus to exist and meet the needs of hundreds of low-income students that he knew would not be able to go to Washington U. or Saint Louis U. or Webster."

Givens also praised Stein's relationship with community leaders in helping the urban campus to thrive and noted he had been honored with the educator's award by the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. state celebration commission this year.

"I would describe him as an educator with strong character and a high level of integrity," Givens said. "I give him all the credit in the world."

To Stein's successor, David Russell, that integrity has laid the groundwork to push the reach of Missouri campuses down the road -- no matter what form the state's education departments may take.

"It's often a thankless job," Russell said. "Higher education is a highly complex thing, and he has done a good job of serving as ambassador to all of the constituencies that it serves.

"You will find by looking at his e-mails and receiving his phone calls at night and on the weekends that he is constantly living and breathing higher education. Putting that energy into something he loves like that is kind of central to the whole thing."


At a retirement dinner that brought together education and civic leaders from all over the state and the nation, there was more talk about Stein's dedication and focus.

One speaker admitted that the others probably rued the day that she taught Stein how to do text messages on his phone. Another talked about the Stein hair-o-meter -- how the way his long mane was arranged was a good indication of how harried the day might be for the commissioner and those who work with him

Now, those long hours, bad hair days and barrage of communications are over. After he turns in his BlackBerry and his laptop, Stein says his first priority is living under the same roof as his wife, Ellen, who has been in Chicago for the past 18 months working in education.

He hopes to find projects they can work on together and to spend more time with their seven children and five grandchildren. 

He also plans to learn Spanish, a project he tried before and abandoned. By making a public commitment, he says, he hopes to be held accountable.

The experience will enhance his interest in international education, Stein said, and help him keep up with one of his sons, who has a doctorate in Spanish literature.

Asked what advice he would have for his successor, Stein summarized things this way:

"I would encourage that you don't lose the ability to laugh, that you don't take disagreements personally, that you bring a sense of integrity and passion to the job, that you have the patience to keep working and the foresight to do self-reflection on a regular basis: Are you having a positive impact?"

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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