Cook reflects on his first year as executive director


Iris Xue

MSMS Executive Director Donald Cook sits at his desk. Cook’s plan for MSMS’ future, dubbed “MSMS 2.0,” focuses on securing new facilities, revisiting curricula and making the school as innovative as possible.

Iris Xue, Staff Writer

After serving his first year as MSMS executive director, Donald Cook reflected on the process of adapting to his position, conquering various challenges in his administration and leading the future of MSMS in his vision of “MSMS 2.0.” 

The Mississippi State Board of Education voted for Cook to become the MSMS executive director on April 21, 2022, and he began his position on June 1. Cook’s primary duties currently include overseeing all operations and activities at MSMS, coordinating future planning and policies and directing financial, personnel, academic, admissions and student services departments.  

Cook graduated from MSMS in the inaugural class of 1990. He later received a bachelor’s degree in psychology and pre-medicine from Mississippi State University in 1994, a master’s in science education from Mississippi College in 1997 and a doctorate in education from Liberty University in 2018.    

Cook said he decided to come back to MSMS and serve the current school community because he loved his time as an MSMS student. He also said he enjoyed his previous experience returning to MSMS to serve in a variety of roles, from teaching biology and chemistry to overseeing the residence halls as a resident hall advisor and later as assistant resident hall director.  

Reflecting on his first year in his current position, Cook said he believes surviving the difficulty of his position has been one of his major successes, and his administrative assistants have been integral to his process of acclimating to MSMS. 

“When I arrived, no one in my office knew how [my position] typically runs, as the longtime Senior Executive Assistant left last February, and her replacement left the week before I arrived on June 1,” Cook said. “Our administrative assistants are crucial staff members, and I appreciate Kellie King and Amy Elsmore in my office for stepping up.” 

Cook said the primary focus for his administration this year was improving morale across campus. 

“There was some turnover in the staff and, of course, the pandemic was stressful, so I recognized we need to focus on what a wonderful place MSMS is and how privileged we are to work here,” he said.

Cook said another major challenge was balancing the MDE’s changes for the school with his own vision of MSMS.  

“I have big dreams for MSMS, and sometimes a large organization like MDE moves slowly. At one point I was told to ‘cool my heels,’ but I want to keep moving forward to make us better for the future. 

“Another challenge is the fact I’m an introvert and don’t get to know students and staff as much as I’d like, but I do have [everyone] in mind when I’m presented with challenges,” Cook said. “Even if I don’t know [everyone] well as individuals, I’m working for the collective body to make things better any way I can.” 

However, through the process of adapting to his role, Cook said the biggest goal the MSMS administration has accomplished is receiving an increase in funding. 

“Our funding was cut in 2008, and we’ve never gotten back to that level in real dollars, much less adjusted for inflation,” Cook said. “We were able to secure an increase of just over $550,000 for next year, which is a huge deal. We’re still not where we need to be, but we’ll keep working.” 

Regarding future plans, Cook said he wants MSMS to be on the cutting edge of education, which is at the forefront of “MSMS 2.0,” his plan to secure new facilities, revisit educational curriculum and make MSMS as innovative as possible. 

“MSMS 2.0 is the name for our future, but we’re in the process of determining what it really looks like,” Cook said. “When I came in, I was pleased to see the ‘DNA’ of MSMS has not changed; the camaraderie among students and between students and staff is still strong. But lots of things still look similar to how they did in 1988 when I arrived as a student.” 

Cook said MSMS needs to rethink how it approaches education in the information age, and even though it may take cues from older ways of learning by incorporating more hands-on activities, experiential learning should be the primary component of MSMS 2.0. 

“‘Experiential learning’ is the buzzword in education, and we want our students to have a rich experience here,” Cook said. “The driving question is how we can provide the highest quality education possible for the next generation of students. There will be many stakeholders helping us determine what that looks like.” 

Though the details of MSMS 2.0 are still up in the air, Cook said, above all, he loves his role because he can serve the place that means so much to him. 

“I can truly say I love what I do and coming to work does not feel like work,” Cook said. “I love being a creative … problem-solver, and focusing on the future of MSMS is lots of fun. It’s great to be able to lead the charge and have a voice which is heard.”