On June 30, 2019, an era will end for Missouri Western when President Dr. Robert A. Vartabedian retires after 11 years at the University’s helm. Missouri Western was his first college presidency, culminating a stellar career of almost four decades in higher education.
“Dr. Vartabedian led with the best interests of the students as the most important thing,” said Dr. Mark Laney, CEO of Mosaic Life Care. “His concern for them always came through.”
Dr. Vartabedian began his Missouri Western career on July 1, 2008, and a look around campus quickly reveals a tangible legacy of construction, renovations and remodeling. Building projects during his term include the new Griffon Indoor Sports Complex, Griffon Hall residence hall, Remington Hall, the Spring Sports Complex and Kelley Commons student gathering space; and renovations of Agenstein Hall, Spratt Memorial Stadium, the Looney Complex arena and the Thomas Eagleton Indoor Pool. Dr. Vartabedian also oversaw the creation of the Walter Cronkite Memorial and its three live, multimedia shows.
His efforts to enhance the campus aesthetic is another of his legacies. Dr. Vartabedian guided the campus beautification efforts of planting of more trees, installing fountains in three ponds, adding gold accents to the clock tower and securing new outdoor sculptures.
But Dave Liechti, chair of the Board of Governors, notes that there is more to Dr. Vartabedian’s legacy than the tangible sites on campus.
“You can always look at buildings and facilities, and those have been major improvements while Dr. Vartabedian has been here,” Liechti said. “But I think the intangible of gaining the trust of many people within our community is a great accomplishment. It’s his attitude and his professionalism in his role as president that have brought community members together to want to support the University. He will truly be missed.”
Under the guidance of Dr. Vartabedian, the University launched a successful Centennial Capital Campaign in 2015 and surpassed its celebration goal of $20 million. Also during his presidency, the Missouri Western State University Foundation endowment nearly tripled since 2009, from approximately $12.5 million to more than $34 million.
The University also engaged in a comprehensive master planning initiative that studied every building and Missouri Western’s entire 723 acres during Dr. Vartabedian’s tenure. He also established the School of Fine Arts in 2013 and the School of Nursing and Health Professions in 2016.
But Dr. Vartabedian is quick to deflect the credit for his accomplishments. “The accomplishments were team efforts,” he said. “The real work has been done by the dedicated people of this University – the faculty, staff, students and alumni who take such great pride in being Griffons, and our many community partners who have made our work possible.”
He believes the R. Dan Boulware Convocation on Critical Issues, which marked its 25th year in 2018, is a real point of pride for Missouri Western.
“Bob has always supported the Convocation, and as we know, according to the Washington Speakers Bureau, it’s now regarded among the best college speaker series in the country,” Dan Boulware said. “And I think Bob deserves a lot of credit for that.”
Prior to joining Missouri Western, he served as vice president for academic affairs at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales, New Mexico. Dr. Vartabedian’s career also included time as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina and a department head and director of graduate studies in communication at West Texas A&M University in Canyon, Texas.
“I’m a proud MWSU graduate and am grateful for the unprecedented significant accomplishments under Dr. Bob Vartabedian’s leadership,” Wayne Chatham ’90 said. “This humbling man with his tremendous management qualities will be dearly missed by his staff, students, peers, the community and friends, and they can be confident that the MWSU successes will continue because of the Dr. Vartabedian legacy.”
In his own words
“I want to be remembered as someone who tried to treat people decently and someone who gave it his best. Hopefully most people felt like they were treated well. I like Maya Angelou’s quote: ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’”
Most proud of
“The positive outcomes for all academic accreditations is at the top of my list.”
“There were two: one was the financial picture and state appropriations. The second was related to the first, keeping good personnel. It was hard to hang on to good people.”
“I have a lot of fond memories. Ribbon cuttings were always exciting. I think my favorites are all those activities that transport people to a positive circumstance from day-to-day conflicts, like music performances, theatre productions, athletics events and student presentations.
Favorite spots on campus
“The Remington atrium is one of my favorites. I also love standing by The Next 100 Years …, the sculpture. Standing in the Stadium Club is the best place to look at the great stadium facilities. And, any spot on campus where I can see the clock tower is nice.”
Miss the most
“I will greatly miss the people. There have been some wonderful people that I have had the privilege of working with.
“We have three facilities on campus named for legendary people: the Thomas Eagleton Indoor Pool, The Bill Snyder Pavilion and the Walter Cronkite Memorial. It’s neat that we have those spaces recognizing people who deserve to be honored.”
In Dr. Vartabedian’s entire time at Missouri Western, the University and all academic program accreditation outcomes were successful. In 2010, the Craig School of Business became accredited by the prestigious Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, and maintained its accreditation in 2016.
“That is just not found at other institutions,” Dr. Vartabedian said. “The entire campus deserves credit for that; everyone contributed to the solid academic progress.”
Griffon athletic programs have won numerous conference championships and competed in national tournaments while remaining free of any major infractions. Student athletes recently established the highest overall GPA in the athletic department’s history. Throughout Dr. Vartabedian’s tenure, several athletic facilities were built or renovated and six new sports programs were established.
Strong Community Partner
Throughout his presidency, developing a good relationship with the community was one of Dr. Vartabedian’s goals, and the University has numerous partnerships with businesses and organizations throughout the community and the region. Dr. Vartabedian said he was especially grateful for the coalition that was formed to save the Thomas Eagleton Indoor Pool.
Another outstanding coalition helped bring the Kansas City Chiefs summer training camp to Missouri Western in 2010. The camp, which will return for its 10th year this summer, has attracted nearly 350,000 visitors to the campus and community.
“Dr. Vartabedian learned early on that the president’s role went above and beyond the students, faculty and staff on campus, and he became engaged in many community organizations from the outset,” said Steve Johnston, director of External Relations and former director of the Community Alliance of St. Joseph. “The Community Alliance of St. Joseph, which promotes a shared vision for St. Joseph, captured his attention and he never turned back. President Vartabedian recognized that for the community to move forward, we must all be working together. His leadership and collaborative spirit will be missed!”
Eickhorst and Collins Art Collections
Sculptor Brent Collins was commissioned to create one indoor and one outdoor sculpture for Remington Hall, which opened in 2010. In 2014, he announced that he intended to permanently loan the University his entire artist’s estate.
In 2018, Dr. William Eickhorst, professor emeritus of art, and his wife, Edith, donated a print collection with approximately 1,100 limited edition prints to the University. “I have been very impressed with the president and what he has done in the fine arts,” Dr. Eickhorst said.
The establishment of an innovative entrepreneurship partnership with benefactor Steven L. Craig has provided a unique business opportunity for alumni. Since 2009, 30 graduates of the C
enter for Franchise Development have purchased more than 40 stores across the country. Since Craig’s gift in 2008 to establish the Craig School of Business and Technology and an entrepreneurial focus, the Center for Entrepreneurship and the Center for Franchise Development have been established in the CSBT, along with an entrepreneurship minor.
“Not only did Dr. Vartabedian support the program every step of the way, he took it upon himself to go to Durango and meet with the owners of the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory. That shows his level of commitment. He was actively involved and wanted to make a difference.”
One of Dr. Vartabedian’s first priorities when he arrived was to increase the number of international students on campus. In the fall of 2008, Dr. Vartabedian’s first semester on campus, there were seven international students enrolled. In the fall of 2018, there were 94 students from more than 30 countries. That number has been as high as 130 in recent semesters.
Increasing the number of online courses was another of Dr. Vartabedian’s goals. He guided several initiatives to create new online courses, and today, some degrees can be earned 100 percent online. In fall 2008, there were 661 enrollments in online courses; by fall of 2018, there were 3,959, an almost 600 percent increase.
Walter Cronkite Memorial
Dr. Vartabedian’s vision led to the creation of the Walter Cronkite Memorial in Spratt Hall in 2013. The
approximately 6,000 sq. ft. display includes three live multi-media shows and hundreds of one-of-a-kind artifacts from the life and career of Walter Cronkite. The Cronkite family has loaned the University many items that are on display in the Memorial. There is also a replica of Cronkite’s 1960s news studio and several interactive displays.
New Facilities and Upgrades
The ground was broken on the Agenstein and Remington halls project shortly before Dr. Vartabedian arrived, but he oversaw the complete renovation of Agenstein Hall and the construction of Remington Hall, which house the biology, chemistry, computer science, math and physics departments. Remington opened in 2010 and Agenstein reopened in 2011.
Baker Family Fitness Center
The Baker Family Fitness Center was extensively remodeled in 2012 to create a large multipurpose room, an expanded cardio area, new restrooms and a larger reception area. The pu
blic locker rooms were refurbished, and a locker room was built for the women’s soccer team. In 2018, a storage area was converted to locker rooms for the cross country, and track and field teams.
Griffon Indoor Sports Complex
The Griffon Indoor Sports Complex was built in 2010 to accommodate the Kansas City Chiefs training camp. The facility includes an indoor football field, a strength and conditioning center, locker rooms, athletic trainer facilities, offices and classrooms.
Griffon Hall, an apartment-style building for sophomores, juniors and seniors opened for fall 2011. Each apartment contains four bedrooms and two bathrooms, a kitchen and a shared living room.
Kelley Commons, an outdoor gathering space for students, opened in 2013. Kelley Commons is adjacent to the Blum Union and contains tables and chairs and a stage area.
Looney Complex Arena
The Looney Complex Arena received all new bleachers and seating and a total makeover of paint and graphics in 2018. In February 2019, the court was renamed Tom Smith Court, after Missouri Western’s longtime head men’s basketball coach.
In 2014, an addition was built on to the south side of Potter Hall, home of the School of Fine Arts, to house the percussion studio. That addition replaced a modular unit that had been used since 2000. Also in 2014, new restrooms were built and a circle drive was added.
Thanks to Missouri House Bill 19 in 2015, the University received $4.8 million in capital improvement funding from the state. Potter Hall and several other campus buildings received updating ceilings and carpeting in common areas, and HVAC improvements.
Spratt Memorial Stadium
Spratt Memorial Stadium underwent a complete renovation and reopened in 2016.
The renovation included a new three-story building with a Stadium Club, suites, a ban
quet room, coaches rooms, a media center and offices. A massive video scoreboard was also part of the project, and the Bill Snyder Pavilion was added in 2018.
Spring Sports Complex
With the opening of the Spring Sports Complex in 2011, the baseball team played on campus for the first time in its history. The complex boasts a softball field and a baseball field with bleachers, concession stands and press boxes.
Thomas Eagleton Indoor Pool
Missouri Western’s indoor pool was completely renovated and reopened in 2016. The shared costs of construction and ongoing operation and maintenance of the pool were the result of a partnership between the University, Buchanan County, the City of St. Joseph, the St. Joseph School District and the YMCA.
In others’ words
“He supported me when I had my first internship on Capitol Hill, and he’s been with me all along the ride. Dr. Vartabedian has been a great mentor. He’s very professional and always has great positivity.”
Board of Governors
“Bob Vartabedian is a very special man, and St. Joseph and Missouri Western have been so fortunate to have him as one of our leaders. He will leave a wonderful legacy for all of us to try our best to live up to.”
Dr. Mark Laney
CEO, Mosaic Life Care
Co-Chair, Centennial Capital Campaign
“Bob, through his leadership and vision, has continued the legacy of building the University into a highly respected and well recognized institution of higher learning in the state. His dedication to the University, its students and the St. Joseph community will leave a lasting impression of his tenure at Missouri Western.”
St. Joseph Chamber of Commerce
“In my time at Missouri Western I had the privilege of getting to work with Dr. Vartabedian on several projects. He was always there when I needed to bounce ideas or concerns about what the students wanted, and he also helped debrief me on things learned in meetings. I considered him a mentor. I am the person I am today due to the example he set for me.”
Former Student Governor
“Dr. Vartabedian understand athletics. He has done a good job of ‘marrying’ the athletic side of things with the student side, and made athletics an important part of Missouri Western. That has not always been an easy role. He is going to be very difficult to replace.”
Gold Coat Club
Farewell, Dr. Laurel
Saying good-bye to a university president sometimes comes with the unfortunate task of also saying good-bye to their spouse, and so it is with great sadness that the University and community bid Dr. Laurel Vartabedian a fond farewell, as well.
Laurel, a communication professor, had a 30-year career in higher education before joining her husband at Missouri Western. That, Dr. Robert Vartabedian said, made her “an indispensable sounding board for me.”
He said he also appreciated her role in hosting many, many events for University and community groups in their home.
“Laurel has been a wonderful member of the community,” said Dave Liechti, chair of the Board of Governors. “She has volunteered and been engaged in many things. She and Dr. Vartabedian have made a great team.”
Laurel immediately embraced the arts community on campus and in St. Joseph, joining the Performing Arts Association Board shortly after she arrived, serving on that board for a total of six years.
“When Laurel saw a need, she immediately started working with other community leaders to fix the issue,” said Teresa Fankhauser, executive director of the Allied Arts Council. “When she saw blight in downtown, she and fellow community arts supporter Jo Anne Grey created the Downtown Photo Gallery Project with a goal to cover up blighted areas and encourage commerce in the downtown area by creating a more vibrant culture.”
Fankhauser said that Laurel’s desire to make things better continued when Missouri Western brought Melissa Manchester to the Missouri Theater. “During that performance, Laurel and other community leaders realized a new sound system, a renovated green room, and dressing rooms were needed to improve the audience’s experience and make it a more comfortable space for the artists. Through their efforts, led by Dr. Jim and Carol Roever, the Missouri Theater now boasts half-million dollar renovation.”
On campus, Laurel and community member Karen Graves founded the Missouri Western Arts Society, which gives arts supporters an opportunity to invest in the University’s arts programs. She continues to be active in that group today.
“Laurel has graciously shared her talents and time in support of the arts and has been a pillar of the Arts Society since its inception,” said Patti Long, development officer. “Her perpetual
dedication has been a great gift to fine arts at Missouri Western and the community.”
Laurel also wrote a musical, “Mother Divine,” that was performed on campus in the summer of 2013 for the Western Playhouse.
That same year, she accompanied a group of students to Trinidad, Colorado for a performance of “American Story,” a musical retelling of the 1914 Ludlow Massacre that she wrote. After that performance, the Ludlow Centennial Commemoration Commission invited Missouri Western to return the next year to perform “American Story” to mark the 100th anniversary of the massacre.
In 2013, she won the Mayors Awards for the Arts in the artist category for “American Story” and “Mother Divine.” Both of these musicals were competitively selected for extended performances in New York City at off-Broadway venues.
“Dr. Laurel Vartabedian has had such a positive impact on our community and her presence will be felt for years to come,” Fankhauser said.