South Dakota Top Blogs

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

Friday, April 28, 2023

They felt they didn't count

It's not the kind of story you will find in a college  alumni magazine.  But it has its origins on the Northern State University campus.  It is a story that gained nationwide attention.  Two women meet at NSU, marry, adopt six children, and kill the entire family in a deliberate car crash.

Jennifer Hart, from Huron, SD, and Sarah Gengler, Big Stone City, SD, met in 1999 after both had transferred to Northern State University from other colleges, Jennifer from Augustana University and Sarah from the University of Minnesota. They both majored in elementary education. Sarah graduated in 2002 with a concentration in special education; Jennifer never completed her degree.   They were lovers and developed a husband-and-wife relationship. They lived together in South Dakota as college roommates, then moved to Alexandria, MN, and decided they would reveal their relationship.  Initially, they got jobs working at a Herberger's department store, where Sarah became a manager.   Jennifer became a stay-at-home mom.  In available accounts, there is no indication that Sarah ever used her teaching degree.

The problem with this story is that some details are widely circulated but unsourced.  It is hard to know what is fact and what is speculation at times and to know where the information came from.  There is a multitude of podcasts inspired by this story in which people pose in front of cameras and prattle on and on as if they have special knowledge about the incident, but add little verifiable, clarifying information.  

Jennifer and Sarah at some point during their time in Alexandria decided to foster and adopt children.  Their first was a 15-year-old girl who, as the story gets told, gets dropped off at a therapist's office by the couple and is then informed that they will not return to pick her up.  Instead, she is taken to another foster home where her belongings had already been delivered.  She never saw Jennifer and Sarah again.  Another problem with this story is why a therapist would be party to a scheme like this.  Some unidentified sources said that the couple had complained that the girl was suicidal and they did not want her to be around to influence younger children they planned to foster.  One source claimed the young woman had been contacted and affirmed this happened to her, but people with knowledge about working with adolescents insist that a valid therapist would never be involved in such a cruel episode.   It occurred shortly before the first group of three young children came to the couple's household.

The couple received their first set of three siblings in March of 2006 and they were formally adopted by the women in September of that year.  The children, who were given the Hart last name were Markis, 8 at the time, born in 1998; Hannah Jean, 4, born in 2002; and Abigail, 3, born in 2003.  In June of 2008, they received the second set of siblngs, Devonte Jordan, 6 at the time, born in 2002;  Jeremiah, 4 at the time, born in 2004; and Ciera Maija, 3 at the time, born in 2005.  They were officially adopted in February 2009.  All of the children were black.

Nine years later, on March 26, 2018, they were all killed when Jennifer along with Sarah loaded them all up in the family SUV and drove it off a 100-foot cliff onto a rocky ocean beach in California.

The incident raises questions about how people who are care-givers become the agents of death, particularly the intentional, violent death of children.  Murder.  Some people say the potential is inherent in some personalities.  Others say it is acquired through life experiences.  Some motives for murder are understandable.  Sort of.  Others are questionable and puzzling.  This suicide-murder event was committed in the context of America being the world leader in mass shootings and shooting deaths in general.  In this case, the instrument of death was the automobile. As in all instances of mass murder, the insistent question is, what motivated it?

Many analysts and commentators on the Hart suicide-murders say it arose from mental health issues.  They gloss over the basis for the bad mental health, what were its recognizable symptoms, and what can be done about it if it is recognized.  And some others contend that the murders are a matter of defects of character, of evil.

The question is, what puts people in a state of mind that allows or induces them to kill children?  It is certainly significant that nearly all mass murderers kill themselves.  The reasons for killing others are usually left unaddressed, but it is doubtful if reason is a relevant element in such cases.  We assume that despair leads to suicide, and the person who commits suicide may think that the killing of children is a means of sparing them from such despair. Or in their rage, they simply want to express it by killing children.

Hearing of the Hart suicide and murders is the occasion for despair in itself.  The events are failures of society.  They cannot be dismissed as the rare actions of an individual possessed by a psychopathology. Jennifer and Sarah Hart seemed to have inclinations and ambitions that were positive, but other issues were at work, too.   They did comment on occasion about encountering disapproval of their lesbian lifestyle, but they seemed to have many supportive friends, too.

As an educator, I, as do my teaching colleagues, like to tell stories about people who have met adversity and triumphed.  Our job is to present information that secures and enhances life.  However, we cannot ignore those who are defeated by the vagaries of human society.  While our society has developed tolerance and understanding of people with differences from the conventional, it retains pockets of cruel bigotry and intolerance.  It is the ill will that comes out of those pockets that sends people over the edge.  

In the Harry Bosch detective stories by Michael Conelly,  in his pursuit of justice, the detective often says, everybody counts, or nobody counts.  That is a definition of what equality means.  Tragedies of self-destruction like those committed by Sarah  and Jennifer Hart are triggered when people are made to feel they don't count.  As a society we are are responsible for making people think they don't count.  The tragedy is ours to own. 

                                        The Hart family killed in a deliberate car crash March 26, 2018.

Saturday, April 15, 2023

When there is nothing to lose...

The feature editor of the newspaper I worked for started a series in which he interviewed some very young people who had been convicted of crimes, and detailed their objectives and techniques.  It attracted a vast readership.  It also inspired outrage in some readers who thought it glorified criminals and gave lessons in how to commit crimes.  The editor of the paper saw an opportunity and decided to provide balance to the series with stories on the criminal justice system from the viewpoints of various participants in it--the criminals, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation officers, and clergy.  I was assigned to interview a prison chaplain who had himself served time.  As a young man, he had been involved in gang activity for which he was sent to prison.  While there, he became a trusty and assistant to a prison chaplain, during which time he joined a religious order.  After release from prison, he entered a monastery and eventually was ordained a priest.  

The interview was lengthy, and he provided me with more perspectives on the working of the justice system than I had opportunity to use.  He did focus on the dangers posed by convicts.  One of my questions was, who did he think was the most dangerous kind of convict?  He said, a person who is wrongfully convicted.

He explained that good law enforcement officers operate on the principle that when apprehending violators they should never, if possible, put them in a position where they have nothing to lose.  When perpetrators  think they have nothing to lose, they have no restraining considerations, nothing to really live for.  They have no reason to submit to any kind of authority or accept any compromises.  They are explosively dangerous to the people around them, because they think they have nothing to lose.  In their minds, they have already lost everything.

People who are wrongly convicted experience a failure of the justice system.  They have substantial reasons to think it is just another destructive force in their lives.  Even those who find eventual exoneration retain skepticism about it because of their experience with it.  Some who find eventual release from prison express gratitude for gaining their freedom, and they work at continuing their lives in a positive manner.  However, others, the chaplain said, can never overcome the discouragement and bitterness at having their lives demolished.  Some acted like model prisoners so they could get out of prison to avenge the wrong that had been done them.  

The chaplain recalled the case of a man who was exonerated by another's  confession.  The man had never engaged in any kind of criminal conduct, but had been convicted of a particularly brutal crime.  He was so obsessed  with obtaining some retribution for his ruined life that the prison authorities were reluctant to release him from prison in fear of what he might do.  There was no legal means to retain any kind of supervisory control over the man, so the state made extensive and generous attempts to help him resume a productive life.  But the man devoted much of his efforts to keeping watch over people involved in his conviction to find any  wrong doing that might be used against them.  The man told people trying to help him that there was no justice; only revenge.  He made clear that his remaining purpose in life was to never let society forget what had been done to him and who did it.  The chaplain said the man succeeded in putting misery into many lives.

He said the unforgiving persistence of the man was a reminder of the burden that all the wrongfully convicted people live with. This interview happened in the mid-1960s, long before there were any organizations devoted to justice for the innocent.  In order to generate interest in helping the wrongfully convicted, the priest worked actively with organizations such as the America Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, law schools, and social organizers.   He said that people who are wrongly convicted undermine all of a free society because they provide hard evidence of its failure.  He worked to find and eliminate wrongful convictions.

When DNA analysis became usable in determining guilt or innocence, a multitude of projects were formalized and made active in finding and correcting wrongful convictions and in refining the criminal justice system to prevent them.

When the chaplain talked about people developing a nothing-to-lose mentality, he said that was a problem he found in people in ordinary life who had no associations whatever with the justice system.  He mentioned that they were the most troubling people that priests and social workers had to deal with.  They were often suicidal and they had no hope or purpose to grasp. 

Shortly after that interview one of the early mass shootings occurred.   Marine veteran Charles Whitman carried a rifle up to a building tower at the University of Texas and shot to death 15 people and wounded 31 others.  Just before that he had stabbed his wife and mother to death.  He was killed by police.  

An autopsy showed that he had a small growth on his brain, but the examiners could not see how it would have affected his behavior.  Follow-up stories revealed that Whitman had a very abusive father and had consulted a campus psychiatrist about pressures he was feeling.  In our newsroom, those of us who worked on the criminal justice series talked over what the prison chaplain had said about people who had developed a nihilistic attitude.  Whitman certainly went on his violent rampage knowing he wasn't going to come out of it alive.

That is a constant in mass shootings.  The two killers at Columbine took their own lives after killing 13 and injuring 21.  Mass shooters have no intention of surviving their attacks.  They commit suicide by themselves or by cop. Very rarely are they captured alive so that there is any chance to probe their motives.

Mass shootings are a pandemic.  105 days into 2023, and the U.S. has had 146 mass shootings.  Our gun control laws have been shaped to insure that any would-be mass shooters have easy access to highly effective means to carry out their tasks.  And, of course, beyond offering thoughts and prayers, people will mutter about mental health.  And that will suggest it's all a matter of recognizing individual cases of mental pathology.

But mass shootings are too common at this point to be isolated incidents unconnected to the way our society is conducting itself.  We experienced those people during the Covid-19 epidemic who acted out against masks and quarantine while scientists worked frantically to develop and produce effective vaccines.  Today, we've had almost 103 million cases of covid-19 in the U.S. with 1,118,800 deaths.  Those who whimpered and whined and flouted the control measures have a lot of responsibility for those high numbers.  But they give us insight as to why mass shootings have become part of everyday life in America.

A mental pathology is being cultivated and passed around.  What makes some people so nihilistic and angry that they devise plans to kill masses of people?  Why would some choose to gun down school children?  What is there in American society that makes mass murder a common event in our daily lives?  This is unique to America, so it is possible to isolate and identify the causes.  We can put science to work on it like we put it to work on covid.

Mass murder can be controlled. There are people who should not have guns.  People who think that carrying guns will protect them from the miscreants with guns have seen too many westerns.  The fact is that the more guns, the more shootings.  The habitual carrying of firearms will create killing fields, not sanctuaries of peace.  But guns are the means of killing, not the motive.

Some shooters have indicated that they intended to make a name for themselves for killing the most people.  The question is, how did they get the notion that making people dead, especially children, is an accomplishment?  How did they arrive at that as some kind of a cultural mindset?  We have avoided pursuing that question because we know the answer will not reflect favorably on the culture we have created.

It's a question we will have to ask, quickly and persistently, before we as a nation have nothing to lose.

Sunday, April 9, 2023

"we look like stupid and cruel hicks"

Greg Brown, a well known folk-singer who works out of Iowa City, rented a theater and put on a retirement show in February. He told the press that he would no longer perform except for some benefit events.  He wrote much material that celebrated life in Iowa, but he said he can't celebrate it anymore.  One line from "The Iowa Waltz," which he wrote is "‘We take care of our old/We take care of our young."  He says that's not true anymore.  And he said he'd move out of Iowa if he wasn't so old.

He told the Cedar Rapids Gazette:  “Iowa has turned into a toxic mess due to the Republican administration.  The water is some of the worst in the country.   Our schools used to be respectable, including the college (University of Iowa) but those schools now are in the middle of the pack or are lower. People still say that Iowa feeds the country. Well, I hope the nation loves high fructose corn syrup and ethanol because that’s what we’re making here.”

In commenting on Brown's assessment of Iowa, the Storm Lake Times Pilot  editor said of Iowans, "we look like stupid and cruel hicks." But, of course, Iowa is not the only place experiencing a deterioration of its state ethos.  What happened to Iowa  happened to the nation.  When Trump was elected president, the democracy fell flat on its face into the muck of degeneration.  The character of Trump is an expression of the values that possess half of America.  That half does not merely "look like stupid and cruel hicks;"  they are stupid and cruel hicks.  They share Trump's perfidy (he's on record for telling more than 30,000 lies during the course of his presidency); his malice and vindictiveness; his greed; his predatory morality; and his willful ignorance. When Trump became president those Americans who resent other people having liberty, equality, and justice assumed it permitted them to unleash their own tendencies.  They emulated Trump in their behavior.

This degenerate behavior showed up in the Tennessee legislature.  After a mass school shooting in Nashville in which three staff members and three children were killed, people flocked to the state capitol building to demonstrate in favor of gun laws which address the slaughter of children in school.  Three legislators added their voices to the demand to do something to stop the killing of children.   The GOP members

The Tennessee Three adding their voices to the demand to stop the shooting of school kids.

were so enraged by this attempt to get legislative attention and action that they called for the expulsion of the three.  The one white woman of the three was one vote shy of being expelled.  The two young black representatives were expelled.  In its vote to expel the members, the GOP caucus effectively expressed its approval for more mass shootings and more dead children on classroom floors.

For those in the nation who want to understand how America became the only nation in the world in which mass shootings are common and frequent occurrences, the Tennessee legislature provided a strong indication of who creates the conditions that make it so.  The nation is dealing with an irony that jeopardizes its survival.  Despite the fact that a Gallup poll shows that more than two-thirds of Americans are dissatisfied with abortion laws with many considering it a constitutional right that should be left to individuals and their doctors to decide, a large faction of the GOP is expending maximum efforts to ban abortions even as a life-saving measure for the mother.  These same people refuse to address the mounting deaths by gun violence and the killing of children in schools.  They are not people with whom intelligent discussion and compromise are even possible.  The talk of unity with them is absurd.  What person of conscience and good purpose wants to associate with them?  Reconciliation with malevolent idiots is like trying to compromise with rattle snakes.  Facts and reasoning cannot penetrate the reptilian cortex which is where they do all their thinking.  If you can call it that.

In recent years, a number of books have been written about how democracy is put in peril and lost.  We are at a point of loss.  Mass shootings in America are a disease that ravages Americans:  more than 600 were killed and 2,700 wounded last year alone. In Tennessee, a peaceful call to take action on the scourge was met with an act of destructive ill will.  One of the young men, a divinity student,  who was expelled said that the legislature was “holding up a mirror to a state that is going back to some dark, dark roots.”  Tennessee is where the Ku Klux Klan was founded.  The legislature showed the rest of the nation how a bunch of stupid and cruel hicks can take over.

God bless America.

Sunday, April 2, 2023

The country that kills its children

America failed.  It promised to recognize equality and give everyone the right to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.  It has shown itself incapable of protecting life.  

Our failure is not spectacular in the ways that other countries have taken lives.  Right now we are much occupied by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, but mostly unaware of a previous invasion and its consequences.  Germany invaded Ukraine in 1941 and on Sept. 29 and 30 of that year lined up almost 34,000 Jews in a ravine outside of Kyiv and gunned them down.

We haven't approached that magnitude yet, but we have gone a step further:  we're doing it to our own people, including our children.

Other nations experience mass shootings on rare occasions, but in America, they have become routine daily occurrences.  As of the 87th day of the year, America has had  130 mass shootings.  Thirteen of them were at schools.  Gun violence is the leading cause of death for American children.

Who cares?  Not many Americans.  At a news conference about the school shooting in Nashville this week, a woman repeated the contention that America loves guns more than it does its children.  The history of school shootings and the body counts of children killed in them show that statement to be true.  Government and research organizations have been tracking mass shooting incidents for a half a century, but the country has shown neither the ability nor the desire to do anything about them.  Gun violence has become a characteristic of the American identity; the refusal to address the security of the people as a condition essential to the pursuit of life, liberty, justice, and happiness is a failure of democracy.  The primary responsibility of a government is to keep its citizens safe.  America has refused to deal with the proliferation of guns and their role in the violence that has become a national trait. 

For every 100 Americans, there are 120 guns.  What we don't have is a well-regulated militia, but the Second Amendment was created to serve that as its purpose. We do have an epidemic of armed people who use their guns to kill other people, and we are the only nation in the world who has that plague as part of its national character.  Our national legislature has authorized mass murder as the  American way.  It let the ban on assault weapons lapse.  After the Nashville shooting, The New York Times posted this headline:  After Mass Shootings, Republicans Expand Access to Guns.

That headline explains how the United States became the world leader in mass shootings and the extermination of children.  It also designates the major political party that staunchly values the right to bear any kind of firearm over the lives of children.

In the 1960s, the nation put school children through drills on what to do in case of nuclear attack. Now they are drilled on what to do when an active shooter comes to their school.  Since the Columbine shooting in Colorado, 348,000 school children have experienced gun violence.  We lost no children to nuclear attack.  The enemies who attack our children come from within the nation.  And those enemies are served by people in Congress who make sure that they can get anything they need to carry out their attacks.

Gun safety has turned out to be the ultimate IQ test which designates the mentally and morally incompetent.  Rather than deal with the gun crisis, many Americans take refuge behind incredibly stupid sayings, such as "guns don't kill children, people do."  Some posit having teachers carry guns.  Others suggest having armed guards posted in every school.   Those who utter such inanities are in need of special handling themselves.  They are too mentally incapacitated to understand the problem.  Or they are too morally bereft to care, and some might even take pleasure in the killing of children.  America's gun problem will not be solved until its stupidity problem is.

Some experts on what the possession of guns means for America, suggest that there are so many guns out there that it is too late to devise any effective control measures.  They see America descending into a state of violent confusion that effectively ends the republic.  One expert said that America is committing suicide by cop.  

With guns being the leading cause of death in children, that is a sign that the nation does not have a peaceful future. The gun displaces books as the basis for what governs us.

How the American experiment in democracy failed: Donald Trump

 I have an old colleague, a political scholar, who claims America ended when Donald Trump was elected president.  He is what some people call a political scientist, but he prefers to call himself a professor of political theory and practice.  He  is among the growing number of political analysts who see that America has made a major movement away from the democratic goals of freedom, equality, and justice for all.  He was not surprised when the Jan. 6, 2021, mob invaded and took over the U.S. Capitol in an effort to overturn the 2020 election.  They did it at the behest of Donald Trump.  But, my colleague says, Trump did not convert these people against democracy;  they found a voice and leader that represents their values in Donald Trump.

My colleague thinks Americans fool themselves with patriotic babble.  They believe America is a better country than it actually is.  He says we talk about the divide among Americans, but the divide has always been there.  There has always been a faction that hates freedom for anybody but themselves.  They resent that people they hate on a racial, ethnic, religious, economic, or sexual basis are considered equal with them.  They think that justice is the oppression and punishment of the people they hate.  Hatred to them is a driving virtue.  We are living in an age when some gains in civil rights and social progress are being reversed.

A few years ago, we were instituting measures to increase the vote.  Now many states are taking measures to restrict it by claiming widespread voter fraud.  Racial oppression and anti-semitism are notably on the rise.  Reports of police killings of unarmed Blacks and anti-Jewish propaganda fill the news.  And school systems are beset by people who want only their ignorance and bigotry taught in classrooms.

Trump has been indicted and Republican are rushing to his defense.  Tump's personal lawyer and the chef financial officer of his company have received prison sentences for what they did under Trump'a direction, but the GOP leaders claim the indictments against Trump are political vengeance.  In his former home base of New York City, Trump is despised for being an obnoxious jackass in his social life and a shyster in his business practices.  The fact that he holds the Republican party in thrall, however, says more about the intellectual and moral deterioration of America than it does about Trump's quality of personhood.  My former colleague says the large segment of the American populace that adores Trump suffers from Mafia envy.  What they admire in Trump is the freedom and power to do wrong.  They regard organized crime as entrepreneurship.

Good South Dakotans would be quick to say that if that is what my colleague thinks of America, he should leave.  He has. When he retired, he moved to a university town in a Scandinavian country from where he monitors what he regards as the demise of America.  Many fellow political scholars in Europe share his views.  To them, America chose to end the democratic enterprise when it chose Trump as its leader.  They think that Jan. 6 iwas the first major event in the disintegration of the American republic.  It and the support of Trump in another run for the presidency are a deliberate rejection of the American experiment in democracy.

While there are forces in charge that pursue the goals of that experiment, the adversaries have gained ground in recent years.  And while there are hordes of people at the borders waiting to get into America, a significant outmigration is in process.  An article in Wickpedia, notes the trend:

According to a Gallup poll from January 2019, 16% of Americans, including 40% of women under the age of 30, would like to leave the United States.[69] In 2018, the Federal Voting Assistance Program estimated a total number of 4.8 million American civilians lived abroad, 3.9 million civilians, plus 1.2 million service members and other government-affiliated Americans.[70]

Whatever happened to America?   For one thing, Trump did.  And the GOP stands with him.

Thursday, March 23, 2023

What can people in Aberdeen do to get some news?

 The most noticeable symptom that something was wrong was that the newspaper featured a front page photo of Governor Ditz (aka Noem) almost everyday.  That seemed  to be a distraction for the fact that the paper contained no local reporting whatever.

The Aberdeen American News has been wheezing along on life support for a couple of years now.  About all that's left to do is close the lid on the casket and bury the remains somewhere.

It announced its ill health in the spring of 2020 when it shut down its press and printed the paper in Sioux Falls, where it said it would be adding production staff, and moved ts editorial operation out of its building on Second St.  into office space on Main Street.  Twenty-one employees got booted in the old wazoo with that move.

Then in November 2021, the Gannett folks, who own the paper, announced that it was closing down the press in Sioux Falls and printing the paper in Des Moines, Iowa.  It said that the rinktums* of 24 people were the boot targets in that move.

There seems to be no one in Aberdeen working on the paper, but someone in Des Moines or environs is filling the news hole with canned copy and getting Kristi Ditz's petulant pucker on the front page every day to signal who is in charge of life in the great state of South Dakota, land of the Oahe stock dam.

When I came to teach at Northern State College, I was faculty advisor to the student publications.  I found that Aberdeen was monitored by a substantial news crew.  It had the Aberdeen American News, reporters and video photographers working out of two television stations, KABY and KELO, and news departments in three radio stations.  And once a week or so, an Associated Press correspondent dropped by to see what was going on in town. Those sources have all vanished.

But there are news people, mostly from the defunct newspaper, trying to keep up some semblance of community journalism.  A local communications entrepreneur, Troy McQuillen, who publishes Aberdeen Magazine, has started an online news publication,  The Aberdeen Insider, which has announced plans to publish a weekly print version in April.  Former Aberdeen American News employees Elisa Sand and Scott Waltman are heading up the news reporting operation.  The Insider openly states that it operates behind a pay wall because bills need to be paid.

The Insider does not plan comprehensive coverage of sports, but directs attention to the online SD Sports Scene run by another former Aberdeen American News staffer Dave Vilhauer.  It contains some great photojournalism by retired American  News photographer John Davis.

All one can do, at the least, is patronize and support these efforts to keep local reporting flowing.  These folks are all we have right now to keep some version of the fourth estate alive for Aberdeen.  There are blogs which make some effort at tracking news, but they are sporadic and often a bit notional about what comprises useful news.  There are other online enterprises that cover news on the state level, such as South Dakota News Watch, South Dakota Search Lightand The South Dakota Standard. However, the Aberdeen American News is a prime example of what happens when hedge funds take over the news business.  We owe a debt of gratitude to those who survived this destruction of journalism and are at work to keep us informed.

*Rinktum: as in "rectum." "I'll skin your rinktum" (William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury, p. 70).

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Fired NSU president appointed president of Minnesota State U. Moorhead

Here is the news release from Moorhead: 

Timothy Downs Named President of Minnesota State University Moorhead

The Board of Trustees of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities has named Timothy Downs to serve as president of Minnesota State University Moorhead. His appointment becomes effective July 1, 2023.

“Dr. Downs brings considerable expertise and keen insights into the changing nature of higher education,” said Devinder Malhotra, chancellor of Minnesota State. “He is a great communicator and a person who is strongly committed to being an ardent supporter of students and the innate missions of a regional comprehensive university anchored in liberal arts and sciences. Without a doubt, he is the right leader at this point in the university’s history.”

Downs is a leader known for facilitating transformational change and positioning campuses to meet current and future demands and needs. In past roles he has dedicated himself to student success and sustaining a campus culture that facilitates a spirit of belonging. Bringing enrollment management skills and strong financial acumen, he is an accomplished fundraiser who has successfully cultivated a shared vision with stakeholders and investors.

He currently serves Cal Poly Humboldt as interim chief of staff where he is responsible for coordinating efforts among all divisions within the university.

Previously, from 2016 to 2021, he served as president/CEO of Northern State University (NSU), a member of the South Dakota Board of Regents System with enrollment of 3,500 students and 330 employees. 

Under his leadership, NSU revised its campus strategic plan, including a refinement of its mission and vision, and revised its recruitment and enrollment plan to stabilize undergraduate enrollments, increase graduate enrollments, and increase student retention.

He worked to sustain respectful and supportive learning communities to serve all members of campus with respect and dignity.

He designed and led a capital campaign that raised over $62 million, raised additional endowed scholarship funds totaling $5 million, and, in total, received over $110 million in gifts to the university during his five-year tenure at NSU.

He facilitated efforts that yielded 20 new academic programs and partnerships, including a graduate program expected to become a national benchmark in special education.

His efforts have helped to confirm NSU as a regional economic and workforce development partner and build exceptional relationships with the community.

Previous engagements include serving as provost and chief academic officer at Niagara University (NY) from 2011 to 2016, and Gannon University (PA) from 2002 to 2011.

He holds a bachelor’s degree from California State University, Sacramento, a master’s from West Virginia University, and a doctorate from the University of Oklahoma.

Dr. Downs will succeed Anne Blackhurst who has served MSUM as president since 2014 and has announced her intention to retire.

Saturday, March 18, 2023

A deathwatch for a community

If you notice that the community you live in is unraveling, it can be dangerous to mention it.  Communities seldom actually die, but they do fail.  Community leaders tend to take explosive umbrage if someone notes that their community is showing signs of failure.  They will rail that the person stating such notice is a negative a--hole, and they will launch into an inventory of all that is alive and thriving in the community and why that negative person is mentally deficient for claiming otherwise.  I live, rather I dwell, in a community that is diminishing in aspects of community life.  Rather than face the facts regarding the faltering community, many who regard themselves as leaders go into a raging denial.

The latest crisis for Aberdeen, South Dakota, is the announcement of the closing of Presentation College at the end of summer.  The closing of an educational institution is a significant loss to a community, a  reduction of its status in the world.  The closing of Presentation College has implications that have not been fully confronted in terms of the resources it once provided or the options it offered. Finances and enrollment are the usual reasons a college has for closing.  However, the place that an educational institution has in the lives of its staff, of its students, its sponsors, and the community is part of their development, their identities, their very lives.

Small colleges such as Presentation which do not operate with a substantial endowment have a formidable disadvantage.   The annual tuition and expenses at Presentation is cited as $22,006.  Across town at the public Northern State University, it is advertised at $8,845.  Northern has the further advantage of more than 50 academic programs, a full range of extra-curricular activities, and supplies financial aid to more than 80 percent of its students.  It also has a much longer history of being part of the Aberdeen community.  Northern was founded in 1901, and Presentation 50 years later in 1951.  However, that indicates a half a century's tenure as part of the community for Presentation, and raises questions about the decision to end that relationship.

The questions raised are not about the college's assessments of its financial and enrollment outlook, but how those assessments reflect on the community's ability to support and sustain an institution that has contributed much to its intellectual, educational, and public services environment.  The loss of Presentation College is a severe setback.  It significantly diminishes the community.   And it comes at a time when Northern State shows faltering in enrollment numbers.  In terms of full-time equivalent enrollments, Northern has the lowest of the state's public colleges.  The reasons given for the closing of Presentation are "a high dependency on gifts and tuition revenue, a remote location that’s hard for out-of-state students to reach, and the pandemic."  As a public institution, Northern is part of the state's regental system and has the resources of the system to help out when enrollments decline and tuition income drops.  But it is also affected by potential declines in enrollment and a remote location that affected Presentation.  So, college officials at Northern and the state have to be alert to any circumstances that might disrupt its operation in ways experienced at Presentation.  Northern had a sudden dismissal of its president in 2021 that was never explained to the community, nor addressed by the faculty.  That dismissal makes many of its constituency wonder if the institution has lapsed into the status that once earned a censure by the American Association of University Professors.  The closing of Presentation alarms community members who know and understand the crucial tasks of keeping higher education functioning and reputable as it might affect Northern.

Aberdeen has experienced many severe reductions in employment by companies throughout the years.  In the mid-1980s, it lost 750 jobs when Control Data closed a plant and more recently hundreds of jobs when Molded Fiber Glass shut down its operations.  Aberdeen has an extensive history of employers abandoning the town. 

It has also lost its status of being a regional shopping center with the closure of such retail operations as Shopko, Kmart, and Herberger's.

The closing of a college is a different dimension in which a community can falter.  Residents are right to wonder what will be next.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

South Dakota Democrats are becoming extinct

 South Dakota has become a one-party state.  Democrats are an endangered species.  The big question is why.  The answer has to do with brain power.  Bright young people who tend toward liberal principles of life do not find them in South Dakota.  If they advocate for more humane and intelligent values and diverse lifestyles, they are told that if they don't like it here, they should move.   So, they do.  And that leaves the residue of racism, intellectual incompetence, and regressive society that characterizes places that resist the principles of democracy.  

South Dakota as a state reminds me of what happened to Cairo, Illinois, as a town.  Cairo strangled itself to death by an insistent racism and intolerant attitude, going from a population of 15,200 to a current population of about 1,600.  It became the kind of place that people of talent and good will wanted to avoid, and so they moved.   And the rest of the state distanced itself from the town as if it were the source of some contagious pestilence.

The abandonment of a place like Cairo involves a process that seems to eliminate any opportunity for the place to recover and rebuild.  The deconstruction removes the social foundations upon which a community is formed.  Abandoned towns like Cairo are tombstones for failed communities.  I have vicariously witnessed the deaths of many small towns, as students wrote about them and the causes of their deaths.  Malevolent bigotry and willful stupidity are the main causes.

I  had a student who so loathed her hometown that she refused to return to it for the holidays.  Rather than go home, she spent her holidays in her dorm room or with friends. Her parents implored her classmates and professors to encourage her to visit her family and friends at home, but she vowed to never return.  She had witnessed the mistreatment of a classmate on a racist basis and conducted a one-person boycott of the town.  Her avoidance of the place became a trend among young people in the town, and eventually the only functioning establishment on Main Street was a senior center,  where the elderly gathered and complained about the lack of civic pride among the younger people.  Young people left to go to college or to find jobs and never returned.  Those few who remained seemed unable to figure out why people left.  Eventually, the town became geriatric in population, and its main street business area withered away.

When I was more politically active, it was my job to maintain a list of active party members and donors.  The list began to dwindle through a steady attrition.  As people were taken off the list because they moved or died, there was nobody to replace them.  As the party attempted to generate interest and attract new members, it became apparent that people were losing interest in participating in group activities.  The party held an annual picnic that once formed lines of attendees that numbered in the hundreds.  It dwindled to the point where the only attendees were the people who volunteered to bring the food.  Its monthly meeting which once packed the courthouse basement shrunk in attendance to the point that it could be held around a dining table. 

We noted the loss of interest in participating in party activities, but we did not know why.  Other civic and cultural groups complained of the same problem.  Something had changed in the social dynamic, and this was long before Covid.  In Aberdeen the American Legion, Elks and Eagles lodges operated facilities where big public events could be held. Their memberships declined to the point where they had to abandon the large facilities.  There has been a change in the desire to gather together to pursue common interests.

What changed was the angry, divisive attitude that some people adopted.  Political discussion had devolved into accusations and invective.  Even though my party knew that mean-mouthing drove people away and refrained from engaging in it, the negative effects from the other side set a tone for political dialogue that offended people of good will so that they avoided all political activity.  In monitoring membership lists, a demographic shift became apparent.  People of liberal tendencies were leaving the state or withdrawing from participation. Their interests and talents were drawing them elsewhere.  People of a regressive bent were moving in.  They found a comfort zone in the backward populations of the state.  In today's South Dakota, the election of a George McGovern or a Tom Daschle or a Tim Johnson would not be possible.  The mood of the state is a placid dullness and backwardness.  And discriminatory hatreds are evident.  A friend who left the state asked recently, "How can you stand to live there?"  The answer is that you keep believing that escape is possible and imminent. Change within the state seems impossible at this juncture.

At this writing, Republican have total control of state government.  The state house consists of 63 Republicans and 7 Democrats.  The senate has 31 Republicans and 4 Democrats.  And Republicans hold all the major state offices. That's how the state votes, and with those huge majorities, alternative ideas don't even get a hearing.  That reflects the dominant attitude in the state.

Democrats I am acquainted with expect their children to leave the state.  And they expect to eventually join them.   There is no talk among them about a future in the state.  Their talk of the future centers on other places.

Such talk gives a lot of insight into South Dakota's future.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

In case you didn't notice, American democracy has had some severe failures recently


On Valentine's Day, we were 45 days into the year 2023, and the U.S. had 67 mass shootings for the year.  America is unique for its mass shootings.  Despite its claims to be the peace-loving citadel of democracy, it killed 104 and wounded 269 so far this year in mass shootings.  Some quibblers will challenge that statement and insist that the country didn't kill them, some mass shooter did.  Those people cannot understand that the country is an accomplice to the crime.  Mass shootings have become a commonplace occurrence over four decades, and the country has been unwilling and unable to do anything about them.  And in 2021,  a total of 48,000 Americans were killed by firearms,

Easy access to guns, especially assault weapons, is a major contributor to this pestilence that asserts its rule over America.  The gun lobby has been successful in promoting an interpretation of Second Amendment that makes any attempt to control the presence and use of fire arms unconstitutional. That interpretation of the Second Amendment holds sway despite the fact that the right to bear arms is stated as conditional upon "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State..." 

For the gun lobby and its adherents, a conditional sentence is beyond their comprehension.  Therefore, conditional terms like "well regulated," "militia," and "security of a free state" are excised from any interpretation of the Second Amendment.  Any interpretation which embraces those conditions is interpreted as an infringement on the right to strut around with firearms ready to blast the ass off of anyone who seems threatening to you.  And the more people carrying firearms, the more threatening the country becomes.

A newspaper editorial responded to the school shootings with the comment that we need to love our children as much as we love our guns.  The gun nuts responded indignantly that they have guns because they love their kids and are armed to protect them, and that people say things like that to force gun control on them.  We've sure seen how well their owning guns for their kids sake has worked out.  

I am a gun owner, but have not as yet had to carry firearms around as I accompanied my children and grandchildren on their activities.  Nor have I stood guard over them at night in case the monster crept out from underneath their beds.  I am also an old soldier who on occasion slept with a carbine, but also understood why no one was considered off duty and went to bed in the billets or went out on pass until the battery armor reported that all firearms and bayonets were cleaned, turned in, and locked up.

And, when we have to teach our children to run. hide, and fight if a shooter shows up, we hardly live in a secure or free state.

 There are others ways that the stupid have found to inflict their vengeance on the intelligent.

As of the first of this month, 1,136,042 people in the U.S. died from covid.  The original White House Response Coordinator and other scientists say 30 to 40 percent of those deaths could have been prevented.

When Covid-19 began its spread throughout the land, quarantine and lock-down measures and the wearing of masks were ordered to reduced the spread of the disease.  Many people adhered to the rules;  many did not.  Those who followed the rules, as disruptive and inconvenient as they were, understood they were the only way to control the spread of the disease until medications and vaccines could be developed to combat it.  Others whined and raged that their freedom was being infringed and they weren't going to take it.  So they exercised their freedom to spread the pathogens and  endanger the health and lives of their fellow humans.  The hopelessly stupid are one of the biggest threats to life in America.

Friday, February 10, 2023

The state of the nation may be strong, but it has malignant tumors

At the 2009 State of the Union speech,  Rep. Joe Wilson yelled "You lie!" at President Obama, and the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution of disapproval against him.  Last year, Rep. Lauren Boebert and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene set loose streams of heckles.  There were objections, but nothing happened to them.  This year, the deranged juvenile function was womaned by Rep. Greene, who fired a volley of "liar"s at the president.  She was supported by other members of her party.  A New York Times columnist described it this way:  "...members of the G.O.P. majority tossed aside rules of decorum and turned the annual speech into a showcase for partisan hostility."

Rep. Greene, I(diot)-Co.
Greene seems to have received some of the attention she so insanely craves, but no official response has been made by her House of Representative colleagues.  She was previously stripped of committee assignments for advocating false conspiracy theories and the infliction of violence on the Democratic leadership.  Congress does have the Constitutional right make  rules of conduct and discipline its members:  "Each House [of Congress] may determine the Rules of its proceedings, punish its members for disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of two-thirds, expel a member." (Art. I, Sec. 5)

While we may be concerned that a person of Greene's malicious personality is involved in making the laws for our country, we should not ignore a more ominous threat that her presence in Congress poses for the country.  What kind of people elect and support people such as Greene and Boebert and Trump to represent them and direct the course of our country?  The people do have the right to obtain legislation that puts an end to the democracy or imposes restrictions on our liberty, equality, and justice.  Do we really want people of their values and lack of basic decency to determine the way we live?  Do they represent the country's current aspirations?

We may take some satisfaction that the country is strong and has survived some assaults on its democratic principles, but its health is in jeopardy.  Greene and Boebert and others like them are malignant tumors on the body politic.  Forty-seven percent of the voters in 2020 voted for Donald Tump, who represents the values that Greene and Boebert put on display.  He is on record for lying to the people 30,573 times while he held the presidency.  He entered the office despite being caught bribing a mistress to keep quiet about  his affair with her while married.  His claim to being a successful businessman is tarnished by his record of stiffing people who did business with him.  And his acts of petty malice were reported daily during his term of office.  By electing him to be president, America resigned its claim to be the shining light on the hill. It was reduced to being a dark human refuse pit with a few flickering match lights of people searching for a way out.

The State of the Union speech is the form that presidents have used since 1913 to meet this Constitutional requirement:       
The President “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” (Art. II, Section 3, Clause 1.)

The  annual speech became customary with the development of radio, and the people could be informed of the president's appraisal and plans for the nation at the same time as the Congress. Members of Congress demonstrate their approval and disapproval of the president's assessments and agenda, but until Rep. Wilson started the erosion of decorum at the affair, it was done with respect and restraint.  Members did not shout personal insult and abuse at the president.  That has changed.  Personal nastiness has become a feature that is so normalized that disorderly behavior receives no reprimand.  And when the State of the Union speech is punctuated with anger and malice, it indicates the actual state of the union.

Speaker McCarthy tried to restrain Greene with facial gestures and soft shushes from the podium, but he was ignored by her.  So, we see how malignancy gets established and spreads.  And although Joe Biden appraises the nation as strong and in his optimism chooses to ignore the ugly growths on the body politic.  

President Biden found the nation strong, but Rep. Greene showed that it is infected by a malady that could eventually weaken it and prevail.  She showed how the shining city on the hill is sliding toward the swamp. That's what a lot of people voted for.

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Waffles and chicken and malevolent ignorance

An insensitive insult?

A school in Nyack, New York apologized for serving waffles and chicken and watermelon on the first day of Black History Month.    Some people thought doing so "reinforced negative African-American stereotypes."  A middle-school child called attention to the meal, saying the waffles and chicken might have been served without much notice, but watermelon served in middle of winter stood out.

The school missed an opportunity for a significant teaching moment.  It assumed that the menu of chicken and waffles was a mockery, not an attempt to acknowledge the purpose of Black. History Month: "the month that honors the triumphs and struggles of African Americans throughout U.S. history."

Apparently, attempts of white people to replicate soul food are resented, rather than acknowledged as a tribute.

But this isn't the first time Aramark [the company that operates the school food service] found itself in hot water. Back in 2018, another racially insensitive meal was served at New York University during Black History Month. It included barbecued ribs, collard greens, cornbread, Kool-Aid and watermelon-flavored water. When called out, the company apologized and workers were fired.

African-Americans created a huge amount of American culture.  Their contributions are particularly notable and evident in music, sports, and cuisine.  Our popular music including jazz and rock and roll has direct derivations from slave  work songs and spirituals. Many, perhaps most, of our sports heroes are black. And much of what we term American food has origins in the black experience.

African-American culture grew out of "the depravity, emotional abuse, torment and murder that drove and sustained American chattel slavery."  It devised ways for people to survive and support  themselves physically, mentally, and spiritually.  Food played vital role in the development of a survivalist culture.  Many plantation owners provided slaves with inadequate food.  To get the nutrients that could support them, slaves developed strategies that could make unsavory ingredients palatable.  Slave women who cooked for their masters found ways to obtain and cook things that expanded the diet and tasted good, too.  They would catch and cook animals such as opossums, and some thought it was a treat.  After slavery ended, a black woman wrote  dialect poem to celebrate the 'possum.

What’s mo’ temptin’ to de palate,
When you’s wuked so hard all day,
En cum in home at ebentime
Widout a wud to say,–
En see a stewin’ in de stove
A possum crisp en brown,
Wid great big sweet potaters,
A layin’ all aroun’

Watermelon is regarded as a stereotypical craving among blacks, but it is much more than that: 

 Watermelon became a staple crop for black farmers after emancipation, with many growing and selling the fruit which slowly turned into a symbol of freedom for the community. 

Southern whites, threatened with new agricultural competitors and still reeling from the loss of the war, responded by associating the fruit with racists tropes aimed at the black community.   

Racists have promoted the image of black people taking simple minded pleasure in eating watermelon.  But while they are taking pleasure in the taste of the fruit, they are also thinking of the part it played in gaining freedom and self-sufficiency.   People in general like to celebrate with foods that are associated with the better moments of their lives.  Sharing food is an act of sharing life, and foods that have contributed to peoples freedom and aspirations convey a festive element.

One such food for people of Scandinavian descent is lutfisk [Swedish spelling].  My mother hosted the Christmas Eve smorgasbord for our families relatives, and lutfisk was a necessary part of it.  Lutfisk means lye fish.  To get through the harsh winters, Scandinavians dried fish to preserve it for use over the cold season.  When it came time to eat the fish, it would be soaked in a lye bath, which would reconstitute the fish.  Then it would be soaked in clear water to get the lye, then cooked.  

Lutfisk is the object of jokes among Scandinavians. It is not exactly a delicacy; some people detest it.  But it is a traditional food with which people survived and thrived in a harsh climate, and it was served at Christmas as a reminder of a  sustenance that made their life and their culture possible.   Soul food carries that kind of significance for African-Americans. It is the product of their ingenuity and persistence in surviving and gaining their status as a free people.  Why is serving soul food on an occasion to memorialize the liberation of blacks regarded as insensitivity or an offense?  Why would anyone choose to see as a racist taunt?

Perhaps, some regard it as cultural appropriation, which is an anti-democratic concept. No one owns a culture.  But the fact that someone is castigated for serving a food as part of a recognition and celebration of a people's freedom is very hard to comprehend. It seems that some people regard food as a weapon in a culture war, not as something that can be shared as a basis for life.

I have no idea what the food servers at Nyack Middle School and New York University had in mind when they put soul food on their menus for Black History Month, but I doubt that it was a food fight or a mocking insult.  They might be the ones owed an apology.


Saturday, February 4, 2023

The South Dakota legislature sucks.

Its members are both suckers and suckees.

It came up in the matter of Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller, who was stripped of her vote and committee assignments for a few days.  That was the result of a complaint from a member of the Legislative Research Council, which provides information and protocols to legislators in the drafting of legislation.  The LRC person's statement was that Sen. Frye-Mueller came to the person's office with her husband to confer over some legislation the Senator was sponsoring.  After discussing some proposed legislation, the  Senator ask the LRC worker about a baby she'd had recently.   According to the worker's statement, Sen. Frye-Mueller then proceeded to give some insistent advice on raising

the child.  She cautioned the mother in a strident manner against vaccinations.  She said they could cause Down's Syndrome or autism in a child and that the child could die from vaccines.

If there's a reason to suspend Sen Frye-Mueller from legislative activity, it is because these statements reveal, if accurate, that she is a prattling lunatic not mentally competent to be making laws that affect public health.  Down's Syndrome is genetic in origin.  So is autism, with the age of parents, premature birth, and gender as other known factors.  As is the case with exhaustive scientific research, testing is done to see if other factors are involved, but vaccines have not been found to contribute to autism.  Frye-Mueller is an ignoramus who presumes to make laws regarding vaccines, and other measures about which her knowledge comes from the wing nut fringe.

She also asked the new mother if she was breast-feeding her baby.  The LRC employee replied that the baby is fed formula.  One assumes that being a working mother is a major consideration in that regard.  But Frye-Mueller launched into the subject of milk production.  She recommended that having the husband suck the nipples at night could stimulate the mammaries into producing milk.  The Senator did not seem to be considering a law requiring that husbands provide oral manipulation of the breasts at night, but she made it a mandate for the young mother,  with the Senator's husband present nodding agreement.  Such a law, however,  would provide some  interesting debate on the legislative floor and give the legislators  a chance to suck in a positive context, rather than demonstrate what bungling fools they are on matters like education curricula and transgender issues.

When Sen. Frye-Mueller's case came before the Senate, her fellows seemed to think her suspension was harsh, but they thought that her encounter with the LRC staff member constituted harrassment.  The  Senator denies that she said or did the things stated in the complaint.  She was restored to her position, but limits have been placed on her interactions with legislative staff, and her work with the LRC must be done with the director.

This case demonstrates what happens when elected officials start legislating on matters for which they have little and often erroneous information.  Competent people leave the state.  The outmigration from South Dakota is reflected in the single-party control of the legislature.  Sen. Frye-Mueller reflects the people who elected her.   So do her colleagues.  If the legislature sucks, that says something about the whole state.  Who wants to live and work in it?  Teachers don't.  That's why the year starts short 176 of them in the state.  Many think it sucks.

Monday, January 30, 2023

A Not-Wanted Poster of Malicious Liars

After a man, David DePape, attacked Paul Pelosi, husband of U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, in his home with a hammer last fall, a number of prominent people made false claims in trying to cast doubt about the incident.  Some claimed it was staged. Others claimed it involved a homosexual relationship.

DePape in a call to a television station admitted that he attacked Pelosi.  And, there are videos of DePape.  A surveillance video shows him breaking into the house. A police body camera video shows the attack itself when DePape fractured Pelosi's skull with a hammer.

That crime inspired those prominent people to create some malicious defamations about Pelosi in an attempt to falsely portray what happened.  When Alex Jones was hauled into court for contending that the Sandy Hook massacre was a staged fake, the judge ordered him to pay $4.1 million in compensatory damages and $45.2 million in punitive damages.  And Jones credibility was devastated.  Jones has declared bankruptcy.

It would benefit the country if Paul  Pelosi would sue those who made false claims about the attack on him.  Some hold political office, and their malicious dishonesty disqualifies them from holding office and they can be removed and prevented from holding office in the future.  Others are television anchors and commentators, and they should be forced to present what they regard as evidence or face the consequences.  They are in professions which do not tolerate perfidious conduct.  If our country is to re-establish any standards that transcend malice in the conduct of public business, these people must be removed from their positions of influence.  

The Seattle Times has compiled and published a list of those who have been caught in the lies and hav been exposed.  It follows:

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States