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Wednesday, July 20, 2022

What happened to Dr. Downs after he was let go at Northern State?

Timothy Downs and friend
In April 2021, Northern State University suddenly announced the resignation of its president, Dr. Timothy M. Downs.  The press release said he was pursuing another opportunity in higher education.

A news story by Jonathan Ellis of the Sioux Falls Argus Leader at the time reported that some state legislators were upset with programs that Dr. Downs was putting in place to meet the standards for diversity that are of concern throughout higher education institutions.  They were circulating the draft of a letter telling Dr. Downs to either curtail the measures he initiated or resign.  The report did not indicate if the letter had been received by him, but if news reporters knew of the letter, Dr. Downs would certainly be aware of it.  Attempts by reporters to obtain more information were met with the response by regents that the press release contained all the information that would be given out.  It was assumed that Dr. Downs accepted the invitation to resign.  In effect, he was fired.

The circumstances of his leaving are important because they indicate that the university system has been compromised politically.  Regents, like school boards, are supposed to mediate between the public and the professional staffs responsible for the operations of the universities.  When politicians intrude directly into the running of universities, academic integrity is compromised, and the degrees they confer lose their credibility as authentic badges of academic achievement.  

Informed members of the public are aware of the political status of universities.  They select colleges which offer reputations for academic freedom and honest scholarship.  The South Dakota system has experienced a significant decline in enrollments over the last decade.  Its headcount enrollment has slipped from 36,430 students to 33,445 for a decline of 8.1 percent.  In terms of full time equivalent enrollment it has gone from 26,468 to 23,964 for a decline of 9.6 percent.  The state system has received a national ranking as the worst in the nation.

Northern State has gone from a headcount of 3,622 to 3,340 for a drop of 7.7 percent.  Its full time equivalent registration has gone from 2,157 to 1,750 for an alarming decline of 18.8 percent in ten years. 

When the faculty has been approached about the administration of the college, its leaders have been defensive and resentful.  Whereas, the faculty for 40 years had been operating under a collective bargaining contract through which it could exert some influence on academic performance and scholarly reputation, the state legislature passed a law in 2020 banning faculty unions.  When approached about how the faculty regarded the dismissal of its president, a faculty senator complained that the questions amounted to "bagging" the faculty.  When the reputation of a college is tarnished by political interference, the faculty is damaged the most.  And potential students look elsewhere to advance their educations.

The firing of Dr. Downs occurred during the floundering of state higher education as it dealt with unabashed political intrusion.  His performance as president was notable for raising $110 million and the building of new facilities on campus.  No information has been offered about his academic leadership, but we do not live in a time when college presidents are appraised for their scholarship.  Nevertheless, the handling of personnel matters in Dr. Down's case indicates that higher education leadership had other things on its minds than the efficacy of instruction delivered to students in South Dakota.

Professional academic organizations require that professors who are fired be given reasons of just cause and that due process be followed.  Reputable universities abide by those rules as a matter of protecting academic freedom and the critical exchange of ideas through which knowledge is established. While college presidents generally work under a contract with a governing body, they should receive the same procedures of due process as their professors.  When institutions fail to observe basic standards of academic integrity in their personnel actions, they call into question their status as valid organizations of higher learning.  Often such violations of standards of personnel procedures result in censure by professional organizations. From 1962 through 1991, South Dakota was on the list of censured administrations by the American Association of University Professors.  It looks as if some legislators and officials are working to get the state on that list again.  Even if no formal censure is made, the action against Dr. Downs is known among prospective students and professors, who will not recommend South Dakota as a reputable place to study or work.

In took a year for Dr. Downs to find that opportunity he wished to pursue.  A few months ago, Cal Poly Humboldt, a state university in Arcata, California, made this announcement:  "On May 1, Timothy M. Downs became Interim Chief of Staff in the President’s Office. He steps in for Sherie C. Gordon, who is currently Interim Vice President for Administration & Finance."

The Cal Poly Humboldt president for whom Dr. Downs is working is Dr. Tom Jackson, Jr., who was president of Black Hills State University from 2014 to 2019.  It is tempting to wonder if those two former South Dakota university presidents are trading tales about what it was like to work for those idiots back in South Dakota.

Here is what the announcement said further about Dr. Downs:

Downs brings decades of higher education experience as a scholar, educator, and leader, and as an advocate for diversity and equity. Downs is also committed to creating and sustaining learning communities that prepare students for careers and rewarding lives.

His academic career began at Cal State LA, where he was a professor of Communication Studies and served as the assistant vice president for Academic Affairs. He has held the positions of dean for Emporia State University and Gannon University. Later, at Niagara University in New York, he served as provost and chief academic officer until 2016 when he was named president of Northern State University (NSU) in Aberdeen, South Dakota. During his tenure at NSU, the university developed over 20 new programs; increased student retention by 10%; increased graduation rates by 5%; stabilized undergraduate enrollment, and increased graduate enrollments by more than 25%, and improved campus facilities.  

Throughout Downs’ career, he has championed equitable treatment and professional growth of students, faculty, and staff. This perspective is confirmed by his development and support for student success centers and programs at three universities. He has advocated for education leading to professional development and worked diligently to provide career advancement opportunities for employees. As an ardent supporter for the liberal arts, he believes in all students developing outstanding critical thinking skills. As a result, he was the driving force behind NSU joining the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges. Downs holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Communication Studies from Sacramento State and West Virginia University. He also earned a Ph.D. in Organizational Communication from the University of Oklahoma. 

It is significant to note that the announcement stresses Down's academic efforts at Northern State, although it does not mention the $110 million raised during his tenure there. 

It raises a question about whether Northern is run by politicians or professional staff and if it is a reputable place to study and work. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That is truly a shame. South Dakota ran off one of our best assets. For what? We are all poorer for the loss of Dr. Downs.

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