After nearly six years at the helm of the Missouri Department of Higher Education & Workforce Development, Commissioner Zora Mulligan will leave the department on July 1.
The Coordinating Board for Higher Education (CBHE) met Wednesday morning for a special session to prepare for the commissioner’s departure. The board discussed the formal process for a candidate search and for hiring, and named current Deputy Commissioner Leroy Wade to serve as interim commissioner once Mulligan leaves.
“It has been my pleasure to work alongside Commissioner Mulligan. On behalf of the Coordinating Board, I want to thank her for her many years of service to the state of Missouri,” said Gwendolyn Grant, board chair. “I extend my congratulations as Commissioner Mulligan takes this next step in her career, and welcome the opportunity to work more closely with Deputy Commissioner Leroy Wade as we continue to work toward increasing educational attainment and workforce participation throughout the state.”
Mulligan has served as commissioner since August 2016. She is the longest-serving commissioner in the last 20 years. Through her leadership and at Gov. Mike Parson’s direction, the department underwent a major transition to create the new Department of Higher Education & Workforce Development (MDHEWD) in 2019, absorbing two offices previously housed within the Department of Economic Development.
The transformation was in response to efforts in 2018, when Mulligan co-led an initiative to build a statewide coalition that developed and advocated for a comprehensive suite of proposals addressing workforce needs. These initiatives included funding higher education institutions to develop or expand academic programs for high-demand occupations through MoExcels and the creation of the Fast Track Workforce Incentive Grant, a full-tuition scholarship for adults.
Mulligan and the new department have focused on bringing options and pathways to both students and adults, including those unemployed and underemployed. Under Commissioner Mulligan’s leadership, the department recently established a new strategic plan, which includes goals to make Missouri the best in the Midwest in educational attainment and labor force participation by 2030.
Other major accomplishments during Mulligan’s tenure include securing the largest investment in state funding for higher ed and workforce development in several decades, leading partnerships with colleges and universities to address equity gaps in higher education, substantially improving the transfer process for Missouri students, increasing graduation rates through alternatives to remedial coursework, and implementing new rules that give public colleges and universities greater ability to meet statewide and regional workforce needs.
Mulligan has also been instrumental in establishing the culture for her team, say officials. Included in the department’s strategic plan is a goal to make MDHEWD the best place to work in state government. New mission and vision statements, as well as new values and department principles were all created at Mulligan’s direction. Each of these play a key role in how team members serve the public and interact with one another. Last fall, the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO) awarded Mulligan the 2021 Exceptional Leader Award.
The CBHE will move forward with a formal search for the next commissioner. Deputy Commissioner Leroy Wade will serve as interim commissioner beginning July 1. Wade has been with the department in various capacities since January 1986. He served as interim commissioner after former commissioner Dr. David Russell retired in 2016.
Mulligan has accepted the position of executive vice president at Missouri State University in Springfield, a role she will begin July 5.
A 1994 graduate of West Plains High School, Mulligan has also served as chief of staff for the University of Missouri system from 2014 to 2016.
Prior to that she was the executive director for the Missouri Community College Association from 2010 to 2014. She also served as assistant commissioner, general counsel and legislative liaison for the state of Missouri from 2007 through 2010.
Mulligan earned a bachelor's degree in political science and psychology from Drury University and a master’s degree in education and law degree from the University of Kansas.