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Friday, July 9, 2021

Does Northern State University have a future?

The Dakota Free Press by Cory Heidelberger pointed out an assessment of higher education that places the South Dakota system as the lowest in the nation.  The ranking is based upon financial considerations, but financial matters reflect political and social attitudes that affect university campuses.   Ranking systems of colleges measure many aspects and produce disparate ratings as to the quality of education offered.  However, colleges that operate in an atmosphere of inferior circumstance and administrative turmoil are places that astute professors and students alike avoid.  Northern State University is in a state of administrative turmoil  that, along with the state being ranked as the worst system in the nation, makes it a place that prospective professors and students must be wary about.


The turmoil at Northern involves  a changing of presidents.  In April, the resignation of Dr.Timothy Downs was suddenly announced in circumstances that appear to involve a forced resignation, and a new president came on board  the first of the July.  During the same week as Dr. Downs' resignation, the president of the Northern Foundation which handles fundraising for the University announced his retirement.  Then this month the athletic director announced that he was leaving for another job.  When contacted, the regents have claimed the departures were coincidental, but experienced college educators see it as the unraveling of an institution that has lost its coherence.  The departures are of the primary executives involved in the raising of $110 million for campus improvements, many of which were for the athletic facilities.  To regard their departures as coincidence stretches credulity to the breaking point.  

Northern has a mixed history with college presidents.  Some have served as agents for the political agenda of  the Board of Regents, which in South Dakota is a  hopelessly politicized agency.  Only one person on the current Board of Regents has any significant experience in higher education and three are appointees of Kristi Noem, which raises questions about their academic values.  Some presidents have attempted to carry out a  traditional collegiate role, which puts them in conflict with the politically-oriented regents.  Dr. Downs seems to have been caught attempting the latter function.  A newspaper report said he had been putting in place some programs for diversity which caused members of the state legislature to compose a letter telling him to either desist or resign.  He did resign.

The incoming president of Northern State faces a dilemma.  He must know that regents who appointed him expect him to be their lackey, and will not support any executive who tries to adhere to the academic freedom on which a legitimate university is based:
...institutional academic freedom safeguards the university as a whole from government or other outside interference. It permits the university to select its faculty and to determine areas of study, appropriate teaching methods, and which students to admit. 

 For about 40 years the South Dakota higher education system operated with a collective bargaining agreement which required the institutions to maintain the professional standards of American universities.  Last year the legislature passed a law prohibiting the college faculty from collective bargaining.  Now the universities have no contract protecting the faculty or the universities themselves from political interference.  The new president, as illustrated by the departure of Dr. Downs, will find constraints if he tries to operate as a free university in a state where the legislature and the governor want to impose the rules.

From the viewpoint of an old professor who believes higher education must be dedicated to the higher, Northern's future is very uncertain.  Will some of the donators of $110 million change their minds?  Is it a place you want to send young people?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have helped change the minds of a few high school graduates that were looking at a South Dakota university to not go and will steer others away. I show them the rankings and other info and they end up going to another state. The anti-science, ant-government, anti-education, anti-mask, anti-vaxx, anti-society and anti-law I encourage to move to South Dakota now.

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