"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Monday, August 29, 2011

Will re-branding elevate St. Cloud State?

I'm old enough that I was a student at St. Cloud State before it was a "university."
The name change from college to university seemed less than earth-shaking.
"Earth shaking" would describe what University of North Dakota is going through with its nickname change. After years of an outright siege with a Native American nickname, which I don't wish to type here, UND moves on.
Education reflects society's wishes. It's a jungle where funding is firmly at the focus.
St. Cloud State is in a new transition.
I had an instructor at St. Cloud State who came up with a mock name for a Minnesota university for the purpose of a class assignment. He coined "Dead Center University."
We laughed because we could see the connection to SCSU.
"Dead Center" reflected the fact SCSU is at the geographical center of Minnesota. That's nothing to sneeze at. SCSU has had some problems through the years but location is a real plus.
Problems? SCSU has often been perceived as big and sprawling with a mission that was perhaps not fine-tuned enough. Maybe SCSU wasn't selective enough. Maybe it wasn't vigilant enough in weeding out non-serious students.
There was something to be said for the "open door" that allowed many boomer age youth to at least test the water in higher education. It was transformative for many of them.
SCSU was known as a place where many students from less than blueblood backgrounds were the first in their family to attend college.
I live in Morris where we tout the selective University of Minnesota-Morris. Maybe I was intimidated by the "airs" of our UMM. I went to SCSU and that's history. If I had my life to live over again, I probably wouldn't attend college.
Today the temptations are much greater to skip college. The communications tech revolution has democratized knowledge. You can pursue all your dreams, whether vocational or avocational, with the new tools.
Academia seems not so rarefied now.
School entails great cost and we hear all the time about the futility of recent grads in job-seeking. This can't last long without some fundamental changes.
SCSU's old, cumbersome, sweeping model is giving way to fine-tuning.
President Earl H. Potter III sent a letter to "alumni and friends" last week. He announced "academic reorganization."
The curtain will open on what he called "smaller and more nimble" academic units. (I'm glad he didn't say "lean and mean.")
He pushes an interdisciplinary perspective. He sees the new model as in step with demands of the times.
I once warranted a one-to-one email from Mr. (or Dr.) Potter. I did a double-take as I scanned the inbox ready to instantly delete the usual marginal stuff. I was humbled to hear from the university president.
I could almost smell the meat-rendering odor of Landy Packing again (LOL).
I had written a blog post about SCSU that alluded to a dubious (but some might say innocuous) side to that institution.
We all know college students can be fun-loving to excess. We as a society are trying to discourage such non-productive habits.
We have become such a down-to-business society. It's both good and bad. It's bad in the sense we seem to be losing some sense of moderation. We need to "stop and small the roses."
SCSU students had no problem "kicking back" but this was too often done with insufficient discretion, so the legend holds. I say "legend" because President Potter would argue that much of the reputation is undeserved.
A few incidents built up a reputation which became like a magnet. Outsiders exacerbated the situation, so the school apologists argue. The media sniffed around more.
I accept Potter's stance on how the reputation was misleading. Incidents in 1991 greased the skids for the PR nightmare. I have read it referred to as "the year of the riots."
Administration was going to have to roll up its sleeves and declare war on the image. So firm has the resolve been, Homecoming is now cancelled. Is that a triumph or surrender? Good question.
I wrote a post on that decision when it was announced several months ago.
Potter doesn't appreciate any reference to SCSU's more frivolous side. Even if it's made with a smile and in a non-denigrating spirit, it's taboo.
At UND it will take years to wipe out the vestiges of the offending sports nickname. That's a more daunting challenge than trying to tweak SCSU's image.
I think we also should keep in mind SCSU's inherent advantages like location (within Minnesota). "Dead Center University" can be inviting for students all around.
It's in a city with a booming reputation. But the city is not as big and possibly foreboding as the Twin Cities. It's not as small as Morris where we literally worry about surviving.
Morris is having to resort to "co-ops" to keep certain institutions going, institutions that we feel are essential for being a college town. They can't hold their own on a private sector basis. St. Cloud-ites would laugh at that.
So ingrained are my memories of SCSU, I can close my eyes and remember the differences in pizza between House of Pizza, Tomlyano's and the Newman Center. (Now there's a rock-ribbed alum!)
I had a biology professor who asked what profession I might be considering. I mentioned journalism. He responded "Oh, you mean opinion modification?"
Yes, opinion modification.
Seriously, his remark wasn't so oddball because it was the mid-1970s and journalists were sort of crusaders then. Writing was more of an exclusive craft. We used manual typewriters. We had "white out" handy.
You'd see little notes on bulletin boards: "Will do typing."
I learned to type young and it was a most wise move. "Mr. Roberts" at Morris High School guided me.
In college I was influenced much by Dr. Amde Habte, my advisor. He had a real liberal arts outlook. He was former director of Ethiopian National Radio.
My affinity with journalism grew when I covered a visit to campus by two luminaries: Max Lerner, pundit of renown; and Kenneth Boulding, scholar/author. My coverage was for the campus Chronicle.
I had the privilege of joining these two for lunch along with the mass communications department chair, John DeSanto. I saw this kind of hob-nobbing was a "perk." I didn't pay for my own lunch either!
Lerner told me about an upcoming column he was planning on "the reading habits of presidents."
"I'm not sure anyone has done this before," the iconic writer, quite up in years but lucid, said.
I wonder what he'd think of the Internet.
Today you can't find anything that hasn't been written about.
I have mixed thoughts about SCSU's current "re-branding" push. Let's do a better job with fewer priorities, they would say.
It's an easy argument to make but it can have a downside. Trimming down means cutting.
A year ago I wrote about Potter's flirtation with cutting the Husky football program, a flirtation I cynically viewed as posturing. Cynicism is well ingrained in us journalists.
I began writing that post within hours after seeing the sensational headline.
Why is it that when college presidents - and I include the U of M's former head Robert Bruininks here - are asked about the impact of proposed budget cuts, they always talk in terms of cutting whole programs?
In Bruininks' case he tossed out the hypothetical of cutting all outstate Minnesota campuses. (Talk about inducing an immediate bowel movement among Morris community leaders.)
In reality, when college presidents have to cut, they "spread it around."
Administrators walk a tightrope.
A friend of mine who is retired from the old West Central Experiment Station here had insights on this. He said: "It's always easy to say 'let's cut this' or 'let's cut that' (with the idea of doing better at what's left). But, you have to realize that any time you cut anything, you lose a constituency that can help you get funding etc."
A sage view to be sure.
Robert Wick was St. Cloud State president when the school opened its doors to the baby boom generation and bulged. Wick was president during a transitional and in many ways painful time. He endured the war protest period.
I rolled up my sleeves and arranged for an interview with this distinguished gentleman, for a class and not the campus paper. This was another experience in career discovery.
Wick had an office on campus but seemed to be out of much of the day-to-day loop. At first I sensed he wasn't real enthused about the interview. It went better as I forged on.
He kept answers short when asked about campus unrest of the 1960s - obviously still a festering subject with him (as it was a no-win proposition for all college administrators).
I researched and found there were "Time Out Days" at St. Cloud State - events to give voice to the protesters. What was Wick to do? Join them? Not likely, but he had to listen, moderate and (try to) keep decorum I'm sure.
The tumult was a distraction from the educational mission, however necessary such a push might have been across the USA..
"It was a hard time for all of us," Colonel Trautman told Rambo in "First Blood."
Wick was the featured graduation speaker in 1978 when I got my SCSU diploma. Wick's name adorns the science building today.
Charles Graham was SCSU president when I was there.
My major of mass communications has survived the "re-branding.".
Chairman DeSanto from my college days was known as a Laurel and Hardy fan and taught a class on the comedy. I took it. It's at the opposite end of the spectrum from the kind of academic rigors Potter is instituting.
And truly there seems to be a scorched earth strategy against the party school image.
The letter that President Potter sent us included an "academic organizational churt" that shows what has "survived the cut" as it were.
I see where sociology and anthropology survived and that disappoints me. Maybe these studies have straightened out but they once were colored with political bias.
We'll see if all the changes at "Dead Center University" are dead on.
Football has survived. I'm sure the pizza is still good around town.
I won't question any part of Potter's new direction, even though I honed my craftsmanship in "opinion modification."
- Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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