On July 1, Missouri Southern welcomed Dr. Dean Van Galen as its sixth president, during a time of unique challenge in the university’s history.

When it comes to taking the reigns as a university president in the midst of a global pandemic, there is no roadmap, he says. What attracted Van Galen to Missouri Southern goes well beyond today’s challenges, but is grounded in the university’s mission and commitment to students.

“Missouri Southern has some truly outstanding attributes, including the strong commitment to student success by its faculty and staff, and the international theme within its mission,” he says. “I’m excited to lead an institution that is unique and very much aligned with my educational priorities and values.”

Spend some time speaking with Van Galen and you’ll find that the student experience is a frequent theme as he talks about his new role and the importance of higher education.

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

His passion and focus on education is something that comes naturally, as he has experienced it firsthand from both sides of the equation. As a first generation college student attending the University of Wisconsin Whitewater in 1980, Van Galen says it was a professor who helped shape the path his life has taken.

“Dr. Ed Drexler was an outstanding faculty member who taught my analytical chemistry class,” he says. “He enjoyed interacting with his students and, while I didn’t realize it at the time, he became a role model for me and shaped my academic trajectory and my career.

“He really inspired me to not only pursue chemistry as a major but to teach it at the college level. I understand the difference he made in my life, and I was able to return about 15 years ago and thank him. I know that these type of transformational experiences also happen every day at MSSU.”

Van Galen went on to earn his Ph.D. in analytical chemistry and began his career in higher education as a chemistry professor at Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo.

From the classroom, he transitioned into positions of leadership within that university and later at the University of West Florida. From 2009 to earlier this year, he served as chancellor at University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He brings to Missouri Southern both academic experience and strengths in external relations and fundraising.

A passion for education is one of the ties that bind the Van Galen family. In fact, he and Mary – his wife of 36 years – actually met in the classroom.

“We were in a computer science course together in 1982. The story goes that I noticed Mary because she received a higher grade than I did on our first test—which is true,” he says with a laugh. “But that’s not the full story.”

Mary holds master’s degrees in nursing and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, and has taught adult English-language learners from 19 different countries in rural Wisconsin. They have an adult daughter, who is a public school teacher.

WELCOME TO MISSOURI SOUTHERN

Shortly after their arrival on campus, the Van Galens received a personalized introduction to the campus and community. Students from around the area offered the couple tours of their home towns.

“It was wonderful to get to know a few Missouri Southern students at a personal level, and to have them provide tours of their home towns. This gave us a unique perspective on the communities in our region,” he says. “So far, we’ve taken tours of Joplin, Carthage, Carl Junction and Baxter Springs (Kan.). It’s an awesome way to get to know the area.”

“My favorite memory so far was when (senior elementary education major) Emilee Baker took me to Randy’s Drive In in Carl Junction. Randy opened up the restaurant early that day and we enjoyed a delicious Bulldog Shake.”

He has also taken the opportunity to meet with regional community and business leaders, legislators and faculty and staff members around campus.

On their own time, the Van Galens are getting to know the area on their own, and he cites Joplin’s Frisco Trail as a favorite spot to do some running.

“I’ve been a runner for almost 40 years,” he says. “These days, I’ll run 5 and 10ks, and I enjoy it as a way to relieve stress.”

“Mary and I both enjoy travelling and experiencing different people and cultures. That’s one of the reasons we were initially attracted to Missouri Southern … the international aspect of the university’s mission.”

As he continues his first year as president, Van Galen says it is his intention to keep listening and learning more about the campus and community, to build stronger connections with Joplin and the region, and to further the university’s commitment to student success.

“It’s clear to me that Missouri Southern is a place that is committed to the success of its students and I want to build on that theme,” he says. “I want every one of our students to have an engaging, positive experience on campus, and be well-prepared for future chapters of their lives.”