A Gutsy Gal Transforms a University

William Woods University, one of Missouri’s premier liberal arts colleges with five campuses across the state that house some 3,600 students, began in 1870 as an orphanage for young women left in dire circumstances following the Civil War. Over the next 120 years, the college updated their admission requirements to allow other young women besides orphans to be admitted; it offered classes in literature, fine arts, home economics and other areas considered most becoming of a proper Missouri woman; their equestrian studies program is ranked the best in the nation to this day.

Then in 1990, Barnett assumed presidency. In her first six years as president, Barnett created graduate and adult-oriented programs, changed the name to William Woods University (from William Woods College) and started letting men enroll.

Strength of the leaders, strengths of the college.

Barnett is now in her 25th year as president of William Woods, an institution to which she has devoted most of her life, having previously spent 17 years in the roles of professor, department chair and vice president. Under her leadership, the school has revolved from a small, single-campus, rural women’s college with about 500 students into a statewide, co-ed university with five permanent sites serving 3,600 students, including many from other countries.

Although her career spans an era that wasn’t exactly friendly to the working woman, Barnett shattered the glass ceiling. Her abilities are William Woods’ strengths: responding to market demands and adapting to new circumstances to remain a healthy, vibrant, growing institution.

“When I first became president in the early ’90s, I decided I wanted to expand our mission and provide educational opportunities to working adults,” Barnett says.
Jefferson City and Columbia were the first of the new locations, but they now offer evening business and education degree programs throughout the state and in Arkansas. Some of these are in rural areas far from any college or university.

“For many of our students, this gives them a second chance, an opportunity to pursue an education or complete a degree that they might not otherwise have been able to attain,” Barnett says.
At the same time Barnett was expanding access to higher education across the state, she was working to enrich the lives of students on the Fulton campus.

Her internationally recognized LEAD (Leading, Educating, Achieving and Developing) Program requires students to attend art exhibits, literature readings and other cultural events in exchange for a tuition reduction. The program is funded in part by contributions to the WWU Loyalty Fund via phonation, direct mail and also by the members of President’s Club. LEAD dramatically increased student engagement and made higher education accessible to many who would not otherwise be able to enroll.

“A continuing challenge is working with increased government intervention and regulation of higher education,” Barnett says. “Operationally, we have been nimble and responded to the ever-changing higher education landscape and will take the necessary steps to continue to do so. For almost 15 consecutive years now, we have worked diligently to keep our tuition increases below 4 percent.”

Barnett has received the National Chief Executive Leadership Award from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education and was named Missouri’s Inaugural First Lady in Education. In May, the Zonta Club of Jefferson City, an organization of executives in business and the professions working together to enhance and advance the status of women, honored Barnett as a Woman of Achievement. She was one of two winners out of 15 nominees.

Last week, she was the proud recipient of the Gutsy Gals Inspire Me Award® in recognition of her 25 years of inspired leadership.

Her awards and grand recognition are only byproducts of her work. Barnett takes pride in her students’ achievements. A vice president of Hewlett-Packard, the former chief operating officer of Arby’s and the president of UPS Americas are among her former students and are all now members of the William Woods Board of Trustees.

This type of success comes as a result Dr. Barnett’s leadership style, one that includes regular dining hall visits, cheering on her teams at athletic events and admiring the work of budding young artists.

And she did all of this while maintaining a balanced budget for the past 10 years.

Adapted from an interview with President Barnett in the Columbia Business Times.