Talk is going around again (actually it always is) about closing a South Dakota university. In South Dakota, such talk will probably always go around. A predominant part of the electorate values low taxes more than it does smart people.
In fact, in looking at the public comments in newspapers, discussion boards, and blogs, one finds that smart people are considered the bane of existence on the plains. During my first year of teaching at Northern State, I attended a conference of state humanities faculty and went to a reception sponsored by the regents of the state higher education system. A few of us faculty were chatting with a staff member who was indulging liberally in the white wine that was otherwise being politely dispensed and sipped, At one point he said, "Just remember that the regents have one major objective to carry out: to make sure no brain cells or good ideas get out of the state alive." To those of us listening, we had no idea what inspired his warning, but just weeks later news came that he got out of the state alive. He took a job working for the higher education system in another state.
Those words haunted me throughout the 20 years I was a professor at Northern, because so many of the policies and decisions seemed to be based upon the premise that brain cells are dangerous and smart people are a threat to the values and way of life. Although higher education officials and politicians constantly whined and moaned about the brain drain from the state, that most bright kids went to college out-of-state and never returned and those that did attend South Dakota institutions tended to skedaddle as soon as they had a diploma in hand, they enacted policies and practices that discouraged ambitious students and faculty from staying. And, of course, there are few opportunities for the bright and talented.
Northern State University has undergone one of its periodic frenzies of self-justification. It has had an economist assess how much money Northern students inject into the Aberdeen economy. I don't know how many such studies I have witnessed. And the local newspaper always runs a big editorial on how important NSU is to the local economy. Of course, if NSU were closed, Aberdeen would experience a pronounced decline. But the prospects raised by these periodic assessments of NSU's value to the community are always put in terms of the money the university brings to the community.
I have still to see an assessment that outlines the intellectual, cultural, and, yes, educational benefits it supplies.
When I came to Northern, I experienced genuine culture shock. Having studied and taught on campuses in Illinois and Iowa, I was not prepared to encounter the anti-intellectual, anti-educational attitudes that were part of the academic environment at Northern. Many on the faculty resented the Ph.D. and the teaching experience brought from a college that celebrated the humanities, the arts, and sciences, its faculty, and its students. That is not to say that there were not people at Northern who valued the academic disciplines and practiced and taught them, but they did so with constant reminders from administrators and politicians and regents that they were merely employees, and nothing more.
Over time, as I traveled the state in various programs that are part of the faculty work, I learned of the role that NSU--and the other institutions--play in South Dakota. In an account of a woman who homesteaded near Pierre, became a country school teacher, and attended Northern to get her teaching credentials, she recalls how her experiences with professors and studies inspired and sustained her. Her most thrilling memory and lasting inspiration was when she heard a nationally known opera singer perform at Northern. ;She saw that event as transforming in that she experienced Northern as a place that sent forth beacons of possibilities and modes of life that raised people above drudgery and struggle for survival.
Northern opened pathways to knowledge and more satisfying lives to many South Dakotans during its century-and-a decade history. One college president, who was obsessed with image and slogans, recognized the intellectual and artistic aspects of Northern as important reasons students came there. He saw that Northern had acted as a gateway to better lives and he made up a slogan that termed Northern "the gateway institution." This slogan quickly drew the ire of the regents office because it suggested that Northern was a way to get the hell out of South Dakota, and many citizens took offense to the suggestion that anyone would obtain an education in order to leave the state. The slogan was withdrawn and suppressed.
During my time at Northern, it underwent considerable retrenchment. The curriculum experienced cutbacks. Foreign language majors were eliminated, even though the college boasts a major in international business, for which one would assume that the study of languages and cultures is important. Faculty and course offerings in English--my department--were cut and largely limited to the service courses in composition with a smattering of literature, the basic essentials for maintaining accreditation for the baccalaureate degree. Throughout the 1980s, Northern supplied more teachers to South Dakota schools than any other state university, but retrenchment, faculty infighting, and some horrendous leadership diminished the education program. My department supplied many fine and effective teachers of English. They were heavily recruited by systems from other states, who paid considerably more than South Dakota. Many academic programs at Northern lapsed into mediocrity and below.
The number of lectures, performing artists, conferences, and academic-related events also diminished over the years. Northern was the headquarters for the Dakota Writing Project, a program that greatly improved the teaching and quality of writing from the grades through graduate schools. We literally ran the project from the trunks of our cars, and we raised the funds for it through grants. It left the campus when the college president appropriated its funds for other extension purposes. During the time I was at Northern, we sponsored some conferences and institutes that gained national recognition, but they were conducted through the efforts of a few faculty with little administrative support or promotion, and many people on campus dismissed them because they involved the humanities and the arts and not the hard core issues of making money.
It is absurdly ironic that people in and around Northern get severe knicker knots when the possibility of closing a state campus is brought up and they have been preparing for years by reducing the curricular offerings and diminishing the programs in the humanities and arts to the point that high school counselors refer their bright and promising students to other institutions.
The outmigration of people with talent and ambition intensifies. And organizations whose operations require people of talent and ambition take their businesses to communities that supply a vital and vibrant community for such people.
Closing a campus will save little money. But it will satisfy the cultural need for many people who see much of academics as merely something to disparage. It will accelerate a population shift that has been going on for a century, and parents will follow their children to more conducive places.