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Rosenmeier Forum: Fabled university president points to intangibles of leadership

Jon Wefald boasts a luminary career in revitalizing universities and ranks among some of the most influential and effective higher-ed administrators in the country.

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Jon Wefald, past president of Southwest State University, former chancellor of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, former Minnesota Commissioner of Agriculture, and former president of Kansas State University, spoke about leadership at the Rosenmeier Forum Wednesday, Oct. 9, at Central Lakes College. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

In his multifaceted career, the 81-year-old Jon Wefald has largely been a transformative figure in education — significantly altering the futures of Southwest State University in Marshall and Kansas State University, among other institutions, for the better.

Around noon Wednesday, Oct. 9, Wefald spoke at a different education venue — Central Lakes College — to a robust crowd in Chalberg Theatre for the Gordon Rosenmeier Forum for State and Local Government. His lesson? A short talk on the traits, practices and decisions for effective leadership.

Rising from humble origins in Minot, North Dakota, Wefald went on to achieve a doctorate in history in 1965 and served as president at Southwest State University and Kansas State University between 1977 and 2009, with a stint as the chancellor of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities squeezed in between. In addition, Wefald served as Minnesota’s commissioner of agriculture from 1971-1977.

Wefald’s tenures as president at both universities flirt with a legendary status. Southwest State University likely wouldn’t exist today if it wasn’t for Wefald’s steady leadership and hands-on, assertive approach to revitalizing the college’s declining enrollment and failing athletic programs by speaking at 94 Minnesota high schools in four months. Wefald said he addressed 30,000 students in that time frame and saw a 30% increase in enrollment thereafter.

Similar successes followed Wefald’s arrival to Kansas State University in 1986 — a 23-year exercise in administrative savvy, reform and dominance that saw the university’s enrollment climb from 15,000 to over 24,000, the addition of 30 new buildings, an increase in charitable donations from $6 million to nearly $100 million and research funding increased from $18 million to more than $110 million per year. Across the board, the university became a trendsetter in academic and athletic achievement, among the highest marks in the nation.

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This, from a self-described C-average student with an ACT score of 19 and a reported IQ of 108, said Wefald, who often spoke with passion and brimming emotion on everything from recruiting high school athletes, to ongoing events in Syria, to a childhood teacher who told him to join the military or work at Woolworth’s because he didn't have the intellectual chops for other pursuits.

With no shortage of bravado and swagger the former university executive said if people applied his insights, they would get results.

“If you follow these principles, you will see success, I’m just telling you that right now,” Wefald said. “This isn’t math or science. I’m just saying that if you follow those, you will be a success no matter what you do.”

Wefald said his principles aren’t revolutionary or particularly unorthodox, but merely axiomatic truths that everyone knows, but doesn’t necessarily practice in their own lives.

There are the usual traits that organizations often prize — a rugged work ethic, a can-do attitude and diligence in the workplace — but Wefald also pointed to emotional intelligence and having a well-rounded, proactive approach to working with others as another key aspect of leadership.

“You know what emotional intelligence is? It means that you show respect. It means you care about everyone. It means you are gracious to everyone. It means you have a spirit of generosity and say thank you to everyone,” Wefald said. “Somebody who has emotional intelligence — they never think they’re the smartest guy in the room.”

While credentials and raw intelligence have their place, spearheading any kind of initiative is often a matter of intangibles, said Wefald, who pointed to a certain kind of philosophical humility to always be learning, always be curious and always seek to redefine and expand the boundaries of the self, and thereby redefine and expand the organization one operates.

“If you have a curious mind, you’re going places,” Wefald said. “Now, listen to this — knowledge is power. It’s powerful. It’s always been that way, it is that way now, and it always will be.”

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