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Barnett reflects on long career

Barnett reflects on long career

August 18th, 2017 by Jenny Gray in Local News

Jahnae H. Barnett, president of William Woods University, sits Wednesday in her office.

Photo by Jenny Gray /Fulton Sun.

Dr. Jahnae H. Barnett, president of William Woods University, never saw herself being in her current position when she was a young woman.

"When I was 16, would I have said I would like to be president of a university? No," she said. "Even now, I'm not satisfied. I'm pleased, but there is still more to do."

Barnett grew up in Caruthersville, a small town in Missouri's bootheel, the daughter of a banker, Delbert Harper, and her mom, Jerry.

"(My father) was my number one inspiration," she said.

When Barnett was named the president of William Woods in 1990, her father was sick.

"He was in the hospital when I was named president," she said. "I called him to tell him. He said, 'I could have given up, but I wanted to know you got that job.'"

She first joined the WWU staff in 1973 as chair of the business and economics department. In 1983, she became vice president of admissions, retention and development until her presidency.

Barnett, now 70, said she has no immediate plans to retire.

"I'm starting 45 years, but who's counting," she said, later adding, "There's too much going on."

Ironically, for all her educational experience, Barnett skipped her high school graduation. She attended summer school at Arkansas State at age 16, just after she completed her junior year of high school, and never went back for her senior year.

"It was the 1960s and none of us realized you don't go to college, and then go back to high school," she said. "The dean called my parents and asked to meet with them."

Barnett became a full-time college student instead and only got her honorary high school diploma when she returned there later for a speaking engagement.

College suited her.

"I was 19 when I graduated," Barnett said. "I went straight to Ole Miss (the University of Mississippi) for my masters."

At the age of 20, that was accomplished. Barnett got a job teaching at Northwest Mississippi Junior College.

"I was teaching adults," she said, laughing. "(Their) teacher was not old enough to go get a glass of wine."

There, Barnett met her husband, Eddie.

"I was a business teacher, and he was a football coach," she said.

But in 1971, Eddie was hired by the Missouri Department of Urban and Regional Planning, and Barnett went to work for the Department of Planning (education) for the state, too. Those jobs were in Jefferson City.

The WWU job came two years later, and the rest is history.

"Most people will say to me, you're the first woman to be president to me, it's more important to say she came from within," Barnett added.

Crazy about horses

William Woods is known for its equestrian program — teaching veterinary science and riding disciplines including saddle seat, western, dressage and hunter/jumper.

Because she felt, as president, she needed to understand the horse-crazy-person personality from the inside out, she learned to ride.

"When I became president, I went to Gayle Lampe and said I needed to know more," Barnett said. "I ended up opening the American Royal."

Lampe, a nationally known saddle seat coach, judge and rider, helped WWU develop its four-year program in equestrian science. She is still professor emeritus of equestrian studies at the university. Lampe hooked Barnett up with riding lessons.

"I would go over in the morning and the kids would hand me the horse," Barnett said, adding riding became a passion.

"I became so obsessed I had to quit," she said while laughing.

But she did pull off the American Royal opening on a Saddlebred named Copycat, found for her to ride by Betty Weldon, former owner of the Fulton Sun and Callaway Hills Stables. Barnett has a small sculpture of Copycat on her coffee table in her office.

"You get so attached to them," she said.


Barnett said she's always thinking about how to improve. Many of her best ideas come to her early in the day.

"I'm a walker," she said; "6 a.m. is when I do my best thinking. What are the challenges that we're facing? Where do we want to go next? It keeps you young and healthy."

There's phone-down Fridays, when students are asked to put down their cellphones and talk in the dining hall. There's the President's 20, a group of hand-picked students with whom Barnett shares ideas.

"Mostly I listen," she said, adding when the university was talking about going co-ed, this group had input in the decision.

"We were moving quickly," Barnett said, adding WWU went co-ed in 1996.

Twice a year, Barnett has an etiquette dinner to teach the skills students might need for interviews and in their careers. She loves to watch their careers grow. And she loves developing William Woods as a top-notch university.

"I think I've adopted change somewhere along the way," she said.

In 1991, Barnett helped bring about an interpretation curriculum for American Sign Language. The next year, an outreach program was developed to help with degree completion around the state. In 1993, graduate programs were added.

Now there are specialist degrees, doctorates, online learning new majors such as physics, veterinarian medicine and legal studies. Students can work five years and walk away with bachelor's and master's degrees.

And the college is debt free. Barnett set a mandate to end each year in the black, financially.

"I'm always trying to be one step ahead," she said.

Her executive assistant, Kenda Shindler, has been by her side for 26 years.

"The people. One person can't do it all," Barnett said. "It's about having the right people work with you."

Barnett plans on more of the same.

"It's what I want to do: New things, new opportunities. Innovating. Being creative," she said. "The faculty and staff know me well. They've worked with me all these years. They also know where my heart is: with the students."

She offered advice to those she has mentored.

"Never be satisfied with who you are, because there's always who you can be," Barnett said, smiling.