It was standing room only Tuesday afternoon for most of the nearly 200 faculty, staff and students that packed into Stotler Lounge at Memorial Student Union to say goodbye to MU’s provost and executive vice chancellor for academic affairs, Garnett Stokes.
Stokes, who served as provost for three years, and briefly as interim chancellor over the summer, is leaving MU at the end of this week for the University of New Mexico, where she will become the school’s first female president.
“You can actually see how popular Garnett is,” said MU Chancellor Alexander Cartwright. “We have way more people than we have chairs.”
And while the many university officials, including Cartwright and UM System President Mun Choi, who took the podium before Stokes’ farewell speech attempted to maintain a lighthearted mood, their focus on the outgoing provost’s ability to lead MU during a time of immense change highlighted her significant role in reshaping MU’s campus culture.
“Since her arrival, I think it’s fair to say that the campus has undergone considerable transition,” Cartwright said to the crowd. “Her steady leadership throughout is much appreciated. She’s thoughtful; a thorough administrator who has worked to create a positive environment.”
Soon after taking her post as provost in early 2015, Stokes led Missouri’s flagship university through nationally-watched protests over racial discrimination and graduate student rights, created the Office for Civil Rights and Title IX and hired nine new deans during a period of high administrative turnover. Five of those deans were females, making women a majority of MU’s Council of Deans for the first time in the school’s history, said College of Arts and Science Dean Patricia Okker.
When Okker, one of the new deans, stood to deliver her goodbyes, she opened with a joke about how few people really know what a provost’s role is, but soon turned to praising Stokes’ ability to not only manage MU’s many academic deans amid administrative instability, but make a series of strong new hires in “anything but the best of circumstances.”
“If she were a typical provost I might be up here saying, ‘You survived. Good luck. Move on,’” Okker said. “But that is in fact not what we are saying here. In a very short time she has had an extraordinary impact on this campus,” Okker said.
Missouri Students Association President Nathan Willett, who is serving with Okker on the 21-member committee that will recommend Stokes’ successor by May, also spoke, emphasizing her “strong leadership was not just needed ... but was completely essential to the future of this institution.”
Before the ceremony, Willett, who said he has formed a working relationship with Stokes through his role with MSA, expressed admiration for her willingness to connect and communicate with students. Willett said the committee will be looking for similar qualities in the next provost.
Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies Jim Spain will serve as MU’s interim provost.
After spending the first 30 minutes of the reception greeting individual colleagues with hugs, handshakes and warm goodbyes, Stokes stood up to give a formal farewell, the final speech of the afternoon.
“When I started here in February 2015, a lot of people said, ‘How could you move to Missouri from Florida?’” said Stokes, who served as provost of Florida State University before coming to MU. “It was easy.”
Stokes also offered onlookers a glimpse into her personal life as she thanked her husband, Jeffrey Younggren, a psychology professor at MU, whom she said refers to himself as “arm candy.”
“The sense of humor that he displayed in my office and with my colleagues — that also sustained me over these three years,” Stokes said as she mused about what Younggren’s honorific title might be as the husband of UNM’s president. “First fellow? We don’t really know.”
But as Stokes continued to reflect on her service at MU, her remarks took on an increasingly sentimental tone.
“It has been an incredible three years,” Stokes said. “There’s so much great history here, but there is a future that I regret that I won’t be here to be such a substantial part of it.”
Before the start of the official ceremony, Stokes said in an interview that hiking the trails near Columbia ranks high on her list of things she will miss most about living in Missouri.
But, as she pointed out toward the end of her speech, “the Santa Fe Trail starts here in Missouri.”