Donald W. Zacharias, the president emeritus of Mississippi State University who served from 1985-1997, died Sunday [March 3] at the age of 77 of complications from multiple sclerosis after an extended illness.
Second in tenure only to Stephen D. Lee, the founding president of the state’s land-grant institution, Zacharias brought Mississippi State to a new level of prominence during his 12 and one-half years of service.
Enrollment, private contributions, research and athletic achievement all grew significantly as part of Zacharias’ legacy; one unmatched in the history of the university and one that the current MSU leader says will definitely stand the test of time.
MSU President Mark E. Keenum said: “Dr. Donald Zacharias was a transformative figure at Mississippi State University. He really helped bring MSU into the modern era, and he did so by developing a broad vision for the leadership that Mississippi needed from a land grant university. At our last visit during the Christmas holidays, Dr. Zacharias was still providing valuable, thoughtful counsel to me and still had the welfare of MSU students at the top of his mind. I counted him as a friend, a mentor, and an inspiration. Don Zacharias was a man of great courage and dignity – and he was one of the most influential leaders in the history of Mississippi higher education.”
Zacharias became a visionary for higher education in Mississippi when he was named MSU’s 15th president in 1985 after coming to the Starkville campus from the presidency of Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Ky. During his tenure, Zacharias raised MSU’s visibility and reputation nationally, enrollment climbed to the largest in the state at almost 16,000. African-American enrollment more than doubled to 2,200, 15 percent of the student body and the highest percentage among SEC schools.
Private support surged under Zacharias, as annual contributions rose from $4 million at the start of his presidency to more than $42 million in 1996. He oversaw the first major gifts drive at the university, the five-year Campaign for Mississippi State, which had more than $143 million committed from alumni and friends when he left office in 1997, shattering the initial goal of $110 million. Also, the university’s endowment grew six-fold over a dozen years to almost $130 million.
In research, funding from external sources doubled, seeing a high of $80 million in one year. The university became home to one of a handful of Engineering Research Centers funded by the National Science Foundation, and MSU became nationally known for use of technology in the classroom. Under his tenure, the university created the state’s first site on the Internet.
Trips to the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four and Sweet Sixteen were among the outstanding athletic accomplishments listed among Zacharias’ successes, as student-athletes also excelled academically. Football team members reached a graduation rate of 70 percent for six consecutive years, placing them near the top among all Division 1 programs. Other notable athletic endeavors included College World Series appearances in baseball, bowl games in football, and SEC titles in tennis and golf. Zacharias also saw that women athletic offerings were expanded under his guidance.
From the beginning of his tenure, Zacharias understood the importance of enhanced campus buildings and grounds in recruiting and retaining students at MSU. He saw the completion of an expansion and renovation to Mitchell Memorial Library. He also was instrumental in the construction of the Joe Frank Sanderson Center, which opened in 1998.
Zacharias received a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown College in Kentucky in 1957 and a master’s degree from Indiana University in 1959, where he also completed a doctorate in communication in 1963. He held an honorary Doctorate of Law from Georgetown for distinguished contributions to the college.
Beginning his higher education career in 1963 as a faculty member in communication at Indiana University, he served until 1969 when he joined the University of Texas communication department, attaining full professor rank before entering administration.
In administrative roles with the University of Texas System, he held positions as executive assistant to the chancellor of the 14-campus statewide system and as assistant to the president of the Austin campus. He then spent six years as Western Kentucky’s president, creating the first comprehensive development program and significantly raising academic standards before taking the helm at Mississippi State.
Born in Salem, Ind., in 1935, Zacharias is survived by his wife of 53 years, Tommie Kline Zacharias, and their three adult children, Eric, Leslie and Alan, and three grandchildren, all of Boulder, Colo. He is also survived by a sister, Mary Catherine Zacharias Collier, of Yucaipa, Calif.
Upon his resignation from MSU in 1997, Zacharias said: “I saw things in Mississippi State University that others might not have seen. I felt that I had made the right decision to be at this university because I liked both what it stood for and its overall character. I liked its mission, and I liked the students and alumni. I saw the potential.”
Funeral arrangements are incomplete at this time. The Zacharias family will communicate details through the MSU Office of University Relations, but a public memorial service is tentatively planned on the campus of MSU on Thursday, March 7.