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Northern Valley Beacon

News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Thursday, November 11, 2021

What happened to Bobby Wilder

For some children, school is not a good experience.  Some kids get bullied.  Some have learning issues. and, of course, some have behavioral problems.  And some are bright and well behaved, but just cannot concentrate.  That inability to concentrate may indicate ADHD issues, but not necessarily.  Over the years, progressive school systems have initiated programs to deal with kids who for these various reasons find school onerous.  Still, some people will look back on their school years as a time they'd prefer to forget.

I have never forgotten a kid named Bobby Wilder.  We were in Garfield elementary school together where I went through the fifth grade.  Somewhere along the way Bobby disappeared. My family moved when I was in the sixth grade and I transferred to Lincoln school.  There was Bobby in the class I was assigned to.

I was never close to Bobby, but I always had a regard for him.  That regard came from the recognition that Bobby was very poor.  His clothes looked used and worn.  After sixth grade, I entered the seventh grade at John Deere Junior High School.  I do not remember Bobby being there.  He must have left the system.  But a memory of him has never left my mind.

My sixth grade teacher, Miss Irwin, was an obese woman who coddled the children of prominent parents, but treated the poor kids with disdain.  She is one of two teachers I had during my education who openly and brazenly conducted themselves that way.  One day in class she had us working on something at our desks while she strolled up and down the aisles, checking over our shoulders.  She stopped at Bobby's desk, yelled at him, and slapped him several times on the head.  We did not know what he did or did not do, and we kept on working so as not to provoke her further.  Bobby put his head down on his desk and covered the back of his head with his hands, guarding against another onslaught.  That was the day I understood what a "broken heart" meant.  I never got over it.  That memory of Bobby Wilder being physically abused still causes deep sadness, pain, and anger.

Bobby was never an assertive or disruptive student.  He was one of those who kept quietly to himself and seemed to retreat into some inner sanctuary, away from a world that held multiple oppressions for him.  

After the incident, many of my classmates talked with dismay about the incident and we told our parents.  We tried to determine just what Bobby did that provoked the teacher into such violence, and decided it was all a matter of a mean streak in the teacher. We tried to be sympathetic and supportive to  Bobby, but he reacted passively, as if we did not understand that discrimination and abuse was a way of life for kids like him.

During my public school years,  abuse of students like that was rare.  I was slapped by teachers, once in the third grade and once in the eighth.  I did things that I admit were confrontational and provocative. Therefore, I did not tell my parents.  However, my parents were told about the occasions by my classmates or their parents.  Their attitude was that if I wanted to be a mouthy brat, I'd better be prepared to receive the consequences.  

I never really liked school.  I enjoyed learning, but found the inherent processes of establishing a social pecking order to be corrosive and depressing.  I had some teachers who worked hard at treating kids as equal and maintaining principles of justice for all, and their efforts enabled me to see education as a liberator and equalizer, and school as a demonstration of America's premise.  But the Bobby Wilder incident of abuse was an example of a failure that counteracts all the good that schools do.   It is also an expression of the human malice that is the source of much of humankind's nefarious deeds. And that malice is coddled by school bureaucracies under the pretext of maintaining discipline.

As I reflect on things I have done in my life, I realize that Bobby Wilder had an influence.  While in basic training in the Army, a unit next to mine had some cadre who were mistreating some draftees who were very poor from families who had no influence to register complaints.  One of my fellow grunts had just graduated from law school and was put on light duty because he was diagnosed with ulcers.  He and I chatted about how we could help the men from the neighboring outfit to get a hearing about the mistreatment.  He decided that they had cause to file a complaint with the inspector general's office.  The big problem was to file a report that would be taken seriously by military lawyers.  We decided that the men needed to make a record of the incidents, so I spent some evenings with some of the men showing them them how to make a record.  It was like a basic journalism report of the exact time and place, who was involved, who witnessed it, precisely what happened, and what harm resulted.  The men made a detailed record of incidents, such as a man ordered to do push ups and being struck in the back with a rifle butt when he wasn't doing them quickly enough for his tormenter.  The men created a file of such  handwritten reports and, with the guidance of the lawyer, submitted an action request to the post inspector general.  I thought I was doing something in support of those men that I couldn't do for Bobby Wilder.  After the men involved had completed basic training and moved on to other duty assignments, an investigation was conducted which resulted in a number of disciplinary actions against some high-ranking officers who weren't paying attention to what was going on in their commands.  

As a journalist and then a professor, I had many subsequent occasions to confront situations of people maliciously mistreating other people.  When Miss Irwin assaulted Bobby Wilder, she did so with an unrestrained malice toward him, apparently because he was poor and struggling.  We fellow students never learned just what he was doing at his desk that day that set her off.  But what she taught us that day is the deteriorating effect that personal malice has on a society that professes to be democratic.

My schoolmates from that class often recalled that day as we progressed through junior high school, high school, and into college.   It was a memory that formed our bond and our identities to each other.  But we did not recall it in terms of what Miss Irwin taught us.  We recalled it in terms of Bobby Wilder and what he had endured in our presence.  He represented to us what happens when decency goes awry.

I do not remember Bobby Wilder being in junior high school with us.  I have often wondered what happened to him.  I suppose his family moved.  Once when I was in the school board office on a story I was working on as a journalist, I asked if they had any records that might indicate where Bobby went.  They did not.

But I remember him, especially when I come across instances of malicious injustice and cruelty.  Bobby Wilder was the real teacher that day in the sixth grade.

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Obituary for South Dakota newspapers

 The newspaper business in the East River of South Dakota is in its death throes.  Watching it die is not pleasant.  When newspapers announce that they are shutting down their printing presses, such announcements are the gasps of a dying enterprise.  The publishers will insist that they are changing with the times, but the blunt fact is that they are coming to an end.

In fact, they are already laid to rest as far being able to state the news in blunt, factual terms is concerned.  They have outlived their function when they can't state the facts, but have retreated to making feeble public relations gasps.

In April 2020, the Aberdeen American News announced that it was shutting down its printing press and that the newspaper would be printed at the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls.  It said:

Twenty-one positions will be eliminated at the American News. As a result of this transition, Sioux Falls will be adding production staff in the pressroom and in packaging, including press operators and packaging staff. Affected employees will be invited to apply.

Then yesterday, 20 months later, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader announced it was closing down its printing press and that it, along with the Aberdeen American News and the Watertown Public Opinion, would be printed in Des Moines, Iowa.  It stated:

The move means 24 people working in the press room, 15 full-time and nine part-time workers, will be allowed to seek employment elsewhere in Gannett or will receive severance.

If there was a Pulitzer prize for inanity, the Argus Leader would finally win some kind of award for its journalism.  Rather than saying it was firing 24 people, it says they "will be allowed to seek employment elsewhere..."  With news writing like that, the potential end of the newspaper will be a blessing to the literate world.  Editors I knew and worked with would rather be dead than let a line like that get into print.

And one must wonder if any of those 21 canned at the American News got jobs at the Argus Leader so that they could be canned again 20 months later.

Newpapers are keyed to operate around their press runs.  Morning papers tried to cover all that happened during the day preceding the printing of the morning paper.  In Aberdeen that all changed when the newspaper canceled its Sunday edition.  It could still get Friday night sports events into its Saturday morning edition, but Saturday events would be covered in the Monday morning paper.

When the Aberdeen newspaper was printed 200 miles away from its editorial offices, some changes in its coverage was obvious.  Some Friday night athletic events at the high schools and colleges were not reported until Monday morning, and that delay was noted by the local sports fans who like their weekends to be filled with news and chatter about local sporting contests.  There also was some gap between other events such as government and civic meetings and reports on them. 

Now Aberdeen is 480 miles from where its newspaper will be printed.  While copy can be transmitted electronically, it must be edited and assembled, then printed and hauled 480 miles to be delivered to the carriers for distribution.  In addition to the elimination of the production staff, the editorial staffs are also shrinking.  The news columns are meager with fewer capable people out in the communities keeping track of what is going on.

The newspaper business has been taken over by organizations that are interested only in multiplying their capital, not in telling the stories of our communities.  

Gannett publishing which owns the three South Dakota newspapers whose printing facilities are being shut down is the largest news publisher in the U.S.  It was bought out by a venture capital company, Gatehouse, which has presided over a decline in journalism in the past two years.  It is the old story of what happens when the bean-counters take over.

The Atlantic has a detailed story of what happened at the Burlington, Iowa, newspaper, titled WHAT WE LOST WHEN GANNETT CAME TO TOWN.  

 [The local] stories are the connective tissue of a community; they introduce people to their neighbors, and they encourage readers to listen to and empathize with one another. When that tissue disintegrates, something vital rots away. We don’t often stop to ponder the way that a newspaper’s collapse makes people feel: less connected, more alone. As local news crumbles, so does our tether to one another.

What Gannett has set up in South Dakota is a scheme that eliminates the most fundamental tool of the working press:  the press itself.  Consolidation of the press actually means termination of the press.  

Newspapers in South Dakota are an endangered species.  If they are to be revived, it will take journalists, not bean-counters. Editors, reporters, and publishers who really want to tell the story of America will have to work out the revival. Journalism provides the information that democracy feeds on.  Can they do it before the republic starves to death?  

Friday, October 29, 2021

A symptom of mental insufficiency

 Here is the news report:

Republican state house representatives Jon Hansen (R-Dell Rapids) and Scott Odenbach (R-Spearfish) authored the “COVID-19 Vaccine Freedom of Conscience Act.” The bill would effectively ban COVID-19 vaccine mandates under any and all circumstances in South Dakota.

And here is the context:


Combat deaths

Civilian deaths

Total deaths

Civil War




World War I




World War II




Covid-19 10/29/2021


The coronavirus has inflicted more deaths than any of our wars.

At this point, it is killing at the rate of more than 71,000 a day. If the government did not take measures to combat the enemy in our world wars, the citizens would revolt.  In the current case, government agencies are trying to implement measures to control and mitigate the disease outbreak.  But groups of citizens are rising up in opposition to those measures.  The major health organizations in South Dakota have mandated that their employees be vaccinated.  Today, a group of GOP legislators met to require a special session of the legislature that will deal with banning or severely limiting vaccine mandates.  

That raises the question if mandates for other vaccines will be revoked.  Currently. the law requires that to be admitted to school, children must be vaccinated for poliomyelitis, diphtheria, pertussis, rubeola, rubella, mumps, tetanus, meningitis, and varicella.*  It does have exemptions for religious or health reasons.   But if legislators are so concerned about mandates for Covid-19 vaccinations, can they ignore the requirements for other vaccines?

Or is their concern about Covid vaccines just another matter of the mindless, belligerent posturing of the Trump syndrome?  Some seem to believe that the more stupidly you behave, the more you are asserting your personal rights.  And there is no doubt that people have the right to be stupid, if that is their preference.

The whole question of public health versus the right to make personal choices is a sign of the mental failure that grips the country.  The issue is not a matter of partisan politics.  It is a matter of whether people have the rational intelligence to understand established science or whether they are attuned to strange spirits they think might be lurking under their beds, or acting according to urban legends they believe to be scripture.  It is a matter of people who are cognitively competent versus those inflicted with  grave mental defects.  In the past the cognitively competent have prevailed and have passed laws that protect the public health.  In the present, we have a strong anti-intelligence movement that resents and resists science and any other ideas produced by knowledge and intellect.  A war between knowledge and ignorance has broken out.  And the warriors of ignorance found a leader in Donald Trump, who professes the right to be stupid.  

But killing 743,000 people is not merely a matter of being stupid.  It is a matter of malice.  To stand idly by insisting on the right to personal choice is no different than standing idly by when the Gestapo marched people to the gas chambers.  Our fight, if there is one, is not with Covid-19.  It''s with stupidity compounded by malice.  The best we can do with people who wish to stand by and blather about their personal choice not to mask or vaccinate is keep them at a distance.  

Our nation is divided.  If the divide is between the intelligent and the stupid, the intelligent can think their way to a better way of life.


*13-28-7.1. Immunizations required for admission to school or early childhood program--Exceptions--Rules.

Any child entering school or an early childhood program in this state, shall, prior to admission, be required to present to the appropriate school authorities certification from a licensed physician that the child has received or is in the process of receiving adequate immunization against poliomyelitis, diphtheria, pertussis, rubeola, rubella, mumps, tetanus, meningitis, and varicella, according to recommendations provided by the Department of Health. The Department of Health may modify or delete any of the required immunizations. As an alternative to the requirement for a physician's certification, the child may present:

(1)    Certification from a licensed physician stating the physical condition of the child would be such that immunization would endanger the child's life or health; or

(2)    A written statement signed by one parent or guardian that the child is an adherent to a religious doctrine whose teachings are opposed to such immunization.

The Department of Health may promulgate reasonable rules, pursuant to chapter 1-26, to require compliance and documentation of adequate immunization, to define appropriate certification, and to specify standard procedure.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Insurrectionists in training

Chamberlain high school students at a basketball tournament.
If you wonder where the January 6 insurrectionists come from, look at events in places like South Dakota. We have an academy for aberrant behavior that is fully accredited by Misfits For Trump. 

The photograph to the left was taken at a basketball tournament in Huron.  I posted it in March and noted that at a time when we were being asked to mask up and maintain social distance, these kids were doing the opposite, in addition to displaying a campaign banner for a president who had been voted out of office.  The ostensible purpose for this gathering of students was to support their high school team in a tournament.  The question it raises is what influences were exerted on these kids to turn a sports event into a political rally for a deposed president?  

When I posted the picture and the question, a former legislator responded:  "What a bunch of crap ! These students are free to express themselves even if you don't agree with them ! I am proud of them ! Leave them alone ! White power hand signs ? Really ? If these students had all been black would you feel the same way ?"

That response answered the question in part, and revealed the kind of influences that were diverting the students' interests away from competitive sports into an irrelevant political issue.  The stupidity and racial malice of the comment displayed the kind of intellectual environment the students are living in.
High school age boys pissing on a sign they vandalized.

A more recent event involving high school aged students took place at the state fair.  The South Dakota Standard gives a full account of a bunch of kids harrassing people and vandalizing the Democrat building, and no one, aside from a few Democrats, much caring.  Again,  this behavior seems to have the full approval of adults.  Part of the adult population has adopted the malicious belligerence of Donald Trump as the standard of behavior.  It's what we have to look forward to in South Dakota.

It is just people expressing themselves.  Stupidity and malice on parade.


Saturday, October 23, 2021

Where do the women go?

Gabby Petito, a vulnerable woman in distress.
The coverage of the death of Gabby Petito has been remarkable for the information left out.  The report was that her remains were found at a campground in the Grand Teton National Park. There were no details about who found her or under what circumstances or how she was murdered. (It was finally reported that she'd been strangled.)  She had been reported as a missing person for weeks before her body was found, and her case became the subject for the social media and the news media.  Stories lamented the fact that the case seemed to be another "missing white woman" case, while the cases of missing women of color do not get the kind of attention that Gabby Petito did.  The coverage reflects a nation dominated by the petty and the peevish, unable to competently address the actual issues that arise.   The issue in this case is that Gabby was in a state of threat by her boyfriend and, although authorities were involved over time, no one seemed to know what to do about it.  Except to quibble about whose demise gets the most attention.

In the local community of Aberdeen, a billboard offers a reward of $10,000 for information concerning a Native American woman, Monica Wickre.  Known as Mona, she was last seen April 7, 1993.  Her family filed a missing person report on April 26.  Her body was found floating in the James River by canoeists on June  16.  While the sheriff's department says it has people of interest in the matter, it hasn't progressed on  the case in 18 years.  The family has put up the  reward to elicit information about what happened to Ms. Wickre.

From the standpoint of journalism, the pictures of Gabby Petito are what attracted so much attention to her story.  She was a pretty white woman, but the forlorn misery she projected in the pictures and videos of her are what motivated so many people to find out her story.  Her expressions made an appeal to those who are disturbed by seeing a living being in distress.  Social service organizations understand that appeal with their fundraising.  Anti-cruelty organizations show pictures of dogs chained outside in freezing weather, and social service organizations show young teenagers bedding down on the streets with tattered blankets.  The videos of Gabby projected that same vulnerability and anguish that elicits sympathy and a desire to do something to relieve the misery.

That white women get more attention when missing than women of color and different cultures is a well-established fact, and it is a symptom of the racism that pulses through our culture.   However, that problem is being met with the formation of movements such as #MMIW,  Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.  The movements call attention to the subjection of minority women to menace and abuse, and some take measures to try to stop it.  

The abuse of women and children generally involves motives of bullying and sexual predation.  To bully is to seek to harmintimidateor coerce someone perceived as vulnerable, according to dictionary definitions. In the military, we used the synonymous term "fuck over."   There is a malevolent motive behind bullying that must be acknowledged, and it is a motive that is a cancer to democracy.  Some people have a compulsion to assert dominance over other people.  They measure their success and importance in life by how many people they can bully.  Or fuck over.  Such people reject the concept of equality except for themselves.  They rank people according to wealth and power, always placing themselves at the top of the order.  Of course, they have traditionally ranked women in the lower orders.  However, there is a ranking on the basis of perceived class and power that overrides gender distinctions.  The important point is to understand that bullying proceeds from that rejection of equality as basic to human rights. 

The urge to dominate is a primitive one. It is the urge that operates in dog packs and chicken flocks.  When human society descends to a striving for dominance,  it means people behaving with a lack of intelligence.   Still, much of human society operates as a competition for dominance.  When dominance is an objective, it creates an underclass upon which to inflict its discriminations and its violence.  Women are traditionally assigned to that underclass.  But gender is just one pretext for designating membership in an underclass which can be abused.  Those who strive for superior status are mentally incapable of understanding the concept of equality.  And practiced equality is essential to liberty and justice for all.

When we get news of the death of Gabby Petito or Monica Wicker, we long for justice in their names.  In our righteous  indignation over their loss, we do not confront the failures of those institutions which are the guardians and enactors of our democracy and rules of decency.

A former priest I know has compiled a list of the Christian precepts of equality which he says the church fails constantly. Some of them, as expressed  in the Bible, are:

  • A righteous man knows the rights of the poor; a wicked man does not understand such knowledge. Proverbs 29:7

  • “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.  Matthew 7:12

  • There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  Galatians 3:28

  • Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each will have to bear his own load. …Galatians 6:1-18

  • Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.  .Philippians 2:3

On the governmental front, there is a movement to banish Thomas Jefferson from the iconography of our democracy because he was a slave owner and he lived his life in ways that seem to contradict the words he wrote in our nation's founding document, the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

If we banish Jefferson, how should we regard our  founding document composed of his words?   He was a complicated man.  He saw the evil in slavery, but thought the slaves, who had been deprived of the educational and social means to live as free people,  needed to be prepared for such freedom.  To banish Jefferson is to evade some harsh facts about our democracy and the struggle to achieve it.  And to deny the facts in our founding is to give into the malice that Lincoln warned us about.

The anger that drives the denunciation of Jefferson is  the same anger that kills women in our society.  It is the anger of those who do not understand the premise of equality and the respectful treatment of others it demands.  If we are to protect women and other vulnerable people from malicious violence, we have to understand the perpetrators as failures of our culture.  

As an old professor, I can say that such general understanding is possible.  But given the current state of our politics and the people who create it, such understanding is not likely.

The belligerence that is a cancer
There is a strain of people who see recommendations and warnings as violations of their personal freedom and their personal choices.  They react with anger at vaccination mandates to protect public health.  They seem to see the admonition not to strangle women with the same belligerence.

Equality is regarding the lives of others as equally important as our own.  Making personal preference more important than the well being of others is a denial of equality.  Women like Gabby and Monica are sacrificed to the angry gods of self-adoration.  Democracy can be ruled by the ignorant, the angry, and the mentally deficient.  It has failed us all when equal treatment failed Gabby and Monica.

Our democracy has been bullied to death, but it cannot rest in peace.


Sunday, October 17, 2021

America is ending.

Some people think that the number of patriots in America has diminished, or that some of their countrymen are anti-American.  What they don't understand is that when a country elects  a person of the character of Donald Trump as president, it has failed as a democracy.  

It is not a partisan matter.  The two party system presents different ways that people think a democracy should be run.  That is not the issue when a person like Trump enters the picture.  The issue is whether you want a democracy that is open, honest, and competent in the quest for liberty, equality, and justice, or you want a fraudulent system in which self-proclaimed winners prey upon designated losers.

The obsequious groveling of Republicans before Trump in the belief that he is essential to the party is obscene.  Seeing Sen. Chuck Grassley giving Trump's ego a blow job in public is to witness ultimate degradation.  Republicans who once castigated Trump now line up to service him.  The grossest obscenity is that the GOP calls itself the party of Lincoln.  You can't claim the virtues of Lincoln while fawning in adulation over the likes of Trump.  That 74 million voters preferred Trump as president defines the state of the country. Despite the loss to Joe Biden,  those people have put the rest of the nation on notice that about half of its citizens do not believe in or want what have been considered the democratic virtues.

This is not new in western civilization.  My ancestors, as is true with most descendants of immigrants, faced political and social corruption.  Rather than engage in a futile struggle to reform their countries, they chose the American frontier.  As people line up at the southern border to escape  corrupt societies, few are aware that half of America prefers the kind of governance and society those refugees are fleeing.  

The contentions that the 2020 election was fraudulent and that January 6 was a patriotic protest are evidence that the U.S. is making George Orwell's 1984 come true.  People who prefer humane decency over malevolent bigotry face a dilemma.  With the Trump campaign to subvert the voting system, many realize that America probably cannot be salvaged in the voting booth.  The fights over masks and vaccinations for Covid-19 is an overwhelming measure of intellectual and moral deterioration of the country.

In 1984, the protagonist has a  job in the Ministry of Truth in which he alters the historical record to fit the needs of the Party. That is just the kind of party the GOP has become.  It has promoted a version of January 6 which denies that the insurrection was an attempt to stop the counting of votes in Congress, and contends it was just a peaceful demonstration.

During World War II, we lost 405,399 soldiers to combat.  In our deadliest fight, we lost 620,000 in the Civil War.  As of today, we have lost 719,725 lives to the coronavirus.  A significant number of people are resisting attempts to mitigate the disease as an infringement of their freedom to the point of violence.  When so many people have descended to this state of dementia, democracy cannot be sustained.  

The angry resistance to health measures is more malignant and debilitating than the disease.  We have preventions and potential cures for the virus that attacks the lungs.  We have no equivalent resources for the malignancy that debilitates the mental  and moral faculties in some people.

Unlike our ancestors, we have no America to move to.  Thinking people see the futility in trying  to change minds that demonstrate an aversion to the premises of equality and justice.  Still, many people would rather cede part of the country to them rather than live with their demented bigotry.

Reports in the media note apathy among Democratic voters.   But some of the discussions on the internet do not reflect apathy as much as a recognition that America has changed and large parts of it have undergone an intellectual and moral failure.

In some of those discussions, the idea of a counter migration has been raised.    Some have proposed organizing a body of people to colonize in another country,  Others have discussed establishing democratic enclaves in the U.S.  much like the Amish, or on the order of Indian reservations.  Others simply contemplate a move to another country.  And some discuss America as the object of a cancel culture.  A colleague says that the election of Trump as president was a cancellation of American culture.

But the significance of recent events for all Americans is that almost half of our countrymen  have rejected the qualities that once defined our democracy.  They are closing that America down.

If there is apathy among some voters, it is because the vote is being undermined, and they must decide how they wish to respond to the closing of America.

Friday, October 8, 2021

Northern State building a monument to avarice

Some turmoil on the Northern State University campus lingers.  While the state university system has seen a slight decline in enrollments of 0.35 percent, Northern has led the decline with 2.65 percent.  

  • Black Hills State University: 3,539, down 1.91%
  • Dakota State University: 3,216, up 1.04%
  • Northern State University: 3,340, down 2.65%
  • South Dakota School of Mines and Technology: 2,418, down 2.38%
  • South Dakota State University: 11,465, up 0.53%
  • University of South Dakota: 9,464, down 0.05%
  • System total: 33,445, down 0.35%

In April, the Northern State campus went through an episode that the university seems not to have the intellectual or moral resources to work through.  Without any kind of explanation, the president of the university was abruptly fired.  The firing raised questions which have never been answered.  That is a perilous state for an institution of higher education to be in.  Higher education requires a high degree of openness and forthrightness to retain credibility.  

 On the same day, the head of the university's foundation left his job and shortly after the director of athletics left.  Then this month the  university announced it was suspending the search for a new athletic director.  This was after a previous announcement that three candidates were invited to the campus for interviews.  The departures of  administrators were reported as a matter of routine, but to people familiar with the workings of higher education, they are indicators of an institution in turmoil.  However, in a state which ranks at the absolute bottom for its administration of higher education, turmoil is business-as-usual. 

The recent departure of college administrators leave the public with a perception that the university has an uncertain future.  The departed president posted an accounting of his tenure:

When I accepted the presidency at Northern State University I promised to transform the institution; in five years this has happened. The academic sector has added over twenty programs; enrollments have stabilized and are now growing; the campus footprint has increased in size by nearly 15%; we have built seven new facilities, the first new buildings on campus since 1987; and the campus has rebranded itself as a desired destination within the region. These outcomes are possible due to the outstanding leadership team I have had the fortune to develop and lead, as well as exceptional community partnerships and support we have facilitated. Since my arrival in 2016 we have invested over $110 million in facilities. An initial donor investment resulting in $49 million to build two residence halls and a regional science center was the impetus to articulate a new vision with a campus master plan that then transformed into a capital campaign. This campaign, The Educational Impact Campaign (EIC), was co-chaired and led by me; has concluded and raised an additional $62 million to build three additional facilities critical to fulfilling the vision of Northern State University as a valued regional asset. An additional $5 million in scholarships was also raised as a result of the EIC campaign. Of course, the most essential element of the student experience is their academic development. Under my leadership we have placed an emphasis on developing infrastructures to ensure student success and retention, including the affirmation of the liberal arts as the foundation of learning to develop students who are intellectually developed in order to become leaders in their careers and communities. NSU’s recent admission as an associate member of Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges (COPLAC) also confirms the importance of liberal arts learning and the development of critical thinking skills for all of our students, a point of pride for our campus. It is also important to note that retention and graduation rates continue to improve; efforts to build stronger industry relationships within the region have led to over 65% of our graduates remaining in state after graduation. I believe all of these efforts confirm a legacy at Northern State, but more importantly, confirm that this institution is sustainable and poised for many successes well into the future.

That outlook for the future seems to have been abandoned.  The firing of the president and the decline in enrollment present quite a different vision of what is, in fact, taking place at the university.  Despite the fact that the university has started a new academic year with new facilities and expectations for growth, it has seen a drop in enrollment that cannot be explained  away by the pandemic.   NSU is in the grip of political forces which have no interest in actual scholarship or effective teaching.  Prior to the departure of President Downs, he was being threatened to be fired by some legislators if he did not abandon plans he had for enhancing diversity on the campus.  Still, the university is asking for $29.5 million to replace  its Lincoln and Briscoe Halls, which the legislature will have to approve.

Dr. Downs' messy firing was a signal to professors that the university is not a good place to work and to students that it is not a good place to study and learn.  It was a demonstration that  academic probity is not much of a concern in the way it does business.  Its lavish new football stadium features party suites and a lounge and bar. It reflects the values of the people in control at Northern.

It seems they are building a monument to avarice.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States