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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