Mulligan rallies state behind higher education

Zora Mulligan is shown in her 8th-floor Truman Building office where she serves as higher education commissioner. Her major role is prioritizing higher education for the state of Missouri. (Julie Smith/News Tribune photo)
Zora Mulligan is shown in her 8th-floor Truman Building office where she serves as higher education commissioner. Her major role is prioritizing higher education for the state of Missouri. (Julie Smith/News Tribune photo)

A varied career in higher education has set Zora Mulligan up for success.

Mulligan, Missouri's commissioner of higher education for the past eight years, has served in a number of differing roles related to the field. All contributed to where she is now.

As an undergraduate student at Drury College, Mulligan said she thought she wanted to be an attorney but changed her mind senior year to pursue a career in higher education. She decided to get a master's degree in education. During that experience, she ultimately determined she did want to go to law school.

"I had wanted to work in higher education legal practice, but what I didn't know as a young person is that it's really hard to get those jobs," she said. "It was an aspiration, but one I never thought would come together."

After law school, Mulligan moved to Jefferson City to work in the Attorney General's Office as an environmental and consumer protection attorney for five years.

Although she originally moved for the job, Mulligan, a West Plains native, said she's grown roots throughout her nearly 20 years in the Capital City.

"I've just been really delighted by the community and sense of connectedness that it's offered for me and for my daughter as well," she said.

Soon enough, the general counsel position at the Department of Higher Education opened up and Mulligan applied.

"It was just a serendipitous coming together of a goal I had thought I had to abandon," she said.

She got the job, which also required her to be the department's legislative liaison. It was a learning experience.

"Bless the commissioner who hired me to do that job because I knew nothing at all about it," she reflected.

Mulligan eventually moved on and became executive director of the Missouri Community College Association for four years before transitioning to serve as chief of staff for the University of Missouri president.

Mulligan assisted university administration after its president resigned amid escalating racial tension and a number of high- profile incidents at Mizzou around 2015.

She couldn't stay away from the department too long, however, as she was appointed the commissioner of higher education in 2016.

Although different in scope and responsibilities, Mulligan said her previous experiences helped inform and prepare her for her current job.

Whether it was developing relationships through the Missouri Community College Association or working on solutions to the issues plaguing Missouri's flagship institution, Mulligan's previous roles gave her experience critical for the state's higher education leader.

The transition wasn't easy, though.

"Just shifting gears from acting in a support role to leading a very difficult conversation was challenging," Mulligan said.

Upon assuming the role of commissioner, Mulligan said a long simmering issue surrounding the Coordinating Board of Higher Education's oversight of institutions offering programs outside their historical mission bubbled to the surface.

She led discussions with a large group of education and university leaders that ultimately settled the heated disputes.

As commissioner, Mulligan said she remains committed to working through policy issues challenging Missouri's higher education system.

One of the first projects she implemented involved traveling the state to visit various higher education stakeholders to share data and hear feedback.

"One of the things we learned at one of our first regional listening sessions was often you'll roll out the data and you'll think you're really impressive and then the local people are like, 'That does not match with the reality that we're experiencing here,'" Mulligan said. "So we learned a lot about why that happens."

Mulligan also works with local and regional stakeholders to talk about the challenges they face and potential solutions the state could work on.

Input directly from colleges, universities, schools, advocates and communities has built momentum for change, Mulligan said, and has been instrumental for getting legislation passed by the Missouri General Assembly.

Over the past couple years, Mulligan has worked with Gov. Mike Parson to make higher education and workforce development a priority for state government.

Mulligan was working with other state departments and consultants when Parson assumed office, setting up a strong foundation for him to move the needle in the state.

"His leadership has been absolutely critical to every new thing that we're doing," Mulligan said. "Without the strong support of a governor, none of these changes would be happening."

She pointed to the success of programs like the Fast Track Workforce Incentive Grant, which covers educational costs for adults going back to school or apprenticeship programs in high-demand areas.

"All of that groundwork that we had laid to strengthen those relationships really paid off," Mulligan said.

The Missouri Department of Higher Education -- now the Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development -- was established in the 1970s to coordinate state resources around post-secondary education, whether that be colleges, universities, trade and technical schools, or apprenticeships.

Employees in the department work on improving post-secondary education policy, settling agreements among institutions, helping students transfer college credits more effectively and helping people find jobs.

Mulligan said the department is full of mission-driven state workers who want to improve the lives of Missourians through greater access to education.

"That passion that the staff shares is one that I do as well," Mulligan said. "I believe fundamentally that education changes lives and that post-secondary education in particular has a huge impact, not only on the individual, but on the life of the family that comes after them."

Mulligan said the people she works with and their passion for higher education are what make the job so enjoyable.

"The immediate group of people who are right around me are super fun," she said. "We have a really good time, and it makes a world of difference on a hard day to know that your folks have got your back no matter what."

That workplace culture is important to Mulligan. So important, it's part of the department's new strategic plan.

Mulligan said that was an intentional pillar of the plan, along with educational attainment and workforce participation, because she wants to make the Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development the best place to work in state government.

She said the department is putting a greater focus on studying its turnover rate and why people leave the department, as well as creating a culture of inclusion and implementing best practices from the private sector.

The strategic plan, which was approved by the Coordinating Board of Higher Education in December, includes lofty but achievable goals for the state, Mulligan said. She wants Missouri to lead the Midwest in higher education attainment and workforce participation.

"Those are very big goals. It's 60 percent for post-secondary attainment and 70 percent for labor force participation," Mulligan said. "And they're bigger than anything our department by itself can do."

Continued partnerships with organizations around the state, such as Jobs for America's Graduates (JAG), will be crucial for achieving the goals laid out in the strategic plan, she said.

The department recently began offering Job Center programs to JAG students, which allows state job center employees to visit high schools and teach students practical skills, such as how to create a resume or practice successful interview skills. Job center employees also discuss career fields, required training for careers, and how the state can help students cover costs of education or training.

"That's a great example of reaching into schools around the state with diverse populations that we think is really going to make a difference," Mulligan said.

Increasing participation of Black, Hispanic and rural Missourians in higher education is another priority, Mulligan said, because those populations aren't attending institutions of higher education at a similar rate as others in the state.

Mulligan said she sees higher education as a way for more Missourians to move up the economic ladder toward more sustainable and better quality lifestyles.

She took that mission to heart when leading the effort to develop the department's strategic plan over the past year. It was important the plan fully encompass all parts of the department, she said, including the recently added workforce development and economic research areas.

Mulligan's job, in addition to leading the department, was to ensure plans were in step with the direction the state is going. That involved communicating the plan to the state chamber of commerce, local chambers, nonprofit partners and other state agencies.

Mulligan said she sees the strategic plan as a roadmap for where the department needs to go and what successes it can celebrate.

"When people throughout the organization complete a project that we think is going to really help make progress toward those goals, that's something that we really believe in celebrating," she said.

Mulligan said one of the biggest challenges the department faces is getting the word out about the resources and services it offers.

The governor has included $1.8 million in his suggested allocation of federal COVID-19 relief dollars to support more effective department communications. Mulligan said the money will be transformational for the department.

"Assuming that continues to make its way through the Legislature, you'll be hearing more about our department in the next three years," she said.