Dr. Shirley Lawler, right, is stepping down and Dr. Dennis Lancaster will serve as interim chancellor.

Dr. Shirley Lawler is stepping down as chancellor of Missouri State University-West Plains (MSU-WP) on June 30 to focus on health issues.

Missouri State University President Clif Smart and Lawler made the announcement Wednesday to MSU-WP faculty and staff in a virtual town hall meeting.

“I have had health issues that I have been dealing with for over a year,” Lawler said, “and after much consideration and discussion with family, I have decided that it would be best if I finished my career in education at the close of this current academic year. President Smart has been incredibly understanding and encouraging over this past year, and he has assured me that I should stay in the position as long as I felt that my health would allow, but for the past six months, I have felt that the best decision is to step down from this role and concentrate on my health.”

“Dr. Lawler was the right person at the right time to serve as chancellor of the West Plains campus,” Smart said. “She worked hard to restore employee morale, improve connections to the community, and solve several major problems. I am disappointed she will be unable to build on these accomplishments in the coming years, but fully support her decision and wish her the best in retirement.”

During the town hall meeting, Dr. Dennis Lancaster, dean of academic affairs, was named interim chancellor. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Smart said, Lancaster will serve in that capacity for at least the next year. “Working with the board of governors, I will evaluate the feasibility of a national search during the next year,” Smart added.

Lancaster has been affiliated with MSU-WP in a variety of teaching and administrative roles for 30 years. He joined the campus as a per course English and journalism instructor in 1990 and was hired full time in 1992 as assistant director of university communications/lecturer. In 1997, he was appointed special projects coordinator/lecturer then became the assistant to the chancellor/instructor in September 2001.

He served as acting chancellor/instructor for six months in 2007 and was appointed assistant professor/director of the Darr Honors Program in January 2009. He has served as the dean of academic affairs for the last eight years.

“I am very confident in Dr. Lancaster’s ability to take over the reins on July 1 and keep Missouri State-West Plains moving forward,” Smart said. “Dr. Lancaster has served this campus for many years, playing a key role in its administration during that time. We are fortunate to have someone with his background to step in as interim chancellor during these unprecedented times.”

Lawler said Lancaster has been instrumental and, in many cases, took the lead on many of the institution’s accomplishments over the last two years.

“I would not even consider this path if I did not feel that a smooth transition could be made,” Lawler said. “I have tremendous confidence in the great team that comes to work each day on this campus and gives 110 percent – a very dedicated and committed group of employees who love this university. Dr. Dennis Lancaster is an excellent choice to lead this campus into its next chapter.”

Lawler was the eighth person to lead the West Plains campus. During her two-year tenure as chancellor, Missouri State-West Plains reached several milestones. These include:

•Establishing an apprenticeship program through GOCAT, marking the campus’ first venture into U.S. Department of Labor certified registered apprenticeships.

•Overseeing the construction and completion of the 850-seat amphitheater project.

•Establishing a West Plains Police Substation at Drago Hall.

•Securing a $300,000 commitment from Ozarks Medical Center (OMC) to help the campus expand the Associate of Science in Nursing degree program.

•Increasing enrollment 5 percent in fall 2019

Establishing the Ozarks Teacher Corps Scholarship, which funds a new cohort of students each academic year.

“It has been a tremendous honor to have served as the chancellor of the Missouri State University-West Plains campus,” Lawler said. “It has been an absolute pleasure working with the West Plains campus community. I truly would not have been able to carry out the duties of my position without the assistance I received from the many dedicated professionals on both campuses, as well as strong community support from the residents of West Plains and surrounding areas.”

Smart also announced at the town hall meeting that Dr. Michael Orf, assistant dean of academic affairs, will serve as the interim dean of academic affairs. Orf has 19 years of experience in higher education, with five of those years being at MSU-WP in the assistant dean role.

“With the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic, now is not the time to conduct a national search for a new chancellor,” Smart said.

As with all personnel actions, these two interim appointments are subject to approval by the Missouri State University Board of Governors.

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