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Saturday, October 10, 2009

University Mission: Seek Niche... or Explore Universe?

..wherein I disagree with the boss...

Dr. Douglas Knowlton, president of the fine university at which I work and study, addresses the seemingly inevitable legislative discussion of closing a university campus. He tells my neighbor and MDL reporter Elisa Sand that such talk is "absurd" and that closing any one of our campuses would be a net loss for the state.

Dr. Knowlton offers this bit of advice to our friends at Northern State on how to strengthen their case against the budget ax:

If the NSU campus has a weakness, Knowlton said, it's the fact that it lacks an identifying program, but the campus in Aberdeen is making efforts to market the new programs that have recently been created.

"Any school needs to find more of a niche," he said [Elisa Sand, "Knowlton Calls Discussion to Close One S.D. College Campus Narrow-Sighted," Madison Daily Leader, 2009.10.09].

I appreciate my boss's expertise in business and marketing. I recognize the practical value of distinguishing one's product or brand by doing something no one else does.

But for all my understanding of the market and political realities of higher education, I question whether niche marketing is the proper paradigm for our university system. Consider Northern specifically: what Dr. Knowlton identifies as a weakness, others might deem Northern's strength. Might not a university want to argue that it's "identifying program" is a broad liberal arts education? Might not a university distinguish itself by offering lots of diverse majors and minors?

The university should address the universe (yes, the words are related) of ideas and possibilities. They should assemble a universe of scholars—both professors and students, seekers of all kinds of knowledge—who will interact in the lively brew of diverse views and interests that spur creativity and strengthen society. My SDSU education in my math and history majors was enriched by the opportunity to take Russian and philosophy. My SDSU experience was enriched by rooming with a range and wildlife science major and living with the cowboys in Hansen Hall. So was my appreciation for the work of our conservation officers and our farmers.

Even MIT, with its "niche" as the mad scientist capital of the world, makes room for majors (majors!) in foreign languages, philosophy, and theater. Granted, neither NSU nor DSU is MIT... but does it hurt to measure ourselves against the biggest and best?

My conception of the university is perhaps out of step with the prevailing business needs of society. We can't just sit back and think grand thoughts; the university needs to be relevant to business and society, needs to give communities bang for their buck. But it is possible that a university can deliver that bang as effectively by reaching for more of the universe, not less.


  1. Northern is an example of what happens to education by cost accounting. The bean counters came and ruled.

    The situation at NSU was created by a combination of administrative disasters. The first is that the Regental appointments are so shamelessly political. A few token regents have associations with higher education, but most have no experience or knowledge of the processes of higher learning. The second is that the regents appoint presidents on the basis of who will carry out their predetermined policies, not define and institute measures that will build the university. And the third factor is a strange animosity directed toward Northern by its sister institutions for which I have never been able to determine the reasons.

    After the mid-1980s, Northern had a series of presidents obviously chosen for their willingness to curtail programs rather than find ways to continue established ones and build new ones. While faculty over the last two decades have identified and pointed out the dangers of limited programs, the faculty is stringently ignored. Governance is centered in the Regents' office.

    Northern has operated under instructions to find its "niche" or "center of excellence" and whatever the current slogan is, but these efforts have all been the cover under which a comprehensive program has been systematically reduced. The result has been a diminishing of the arts and sciences to a level that barely meets the minimum for the granting of accredited degrees. The academic standards have slipped to the point that students have left because courses in the arts and sciences have not covered materials that they already had in high school. Faculty who have pointed this out have been systematically eliminated.

    One recent president had his Ph.D. in higher education marketing, and his tenure was marked by slick advertising and sloganeering and a steady decline in enrollments.

    Northern has a notable basketball program which it features, but demonstrates how disconnected athletics has become from academics. Its previous strengths were education and music with strong supporting programs. A symptom of decline is that Northern cannot sustain student publications commensurate with a college and its sister institutions have created noteworthy programs.

    In the past five presidential searches, I either served in some capacity in the searches or have had close associates who did, and candidates with strong academic credentials and records of performance were systematically eliminated by the Regents' agents on the search committees. It is almost as if the regents were building a history that will provide reasons for eventual elimination of the campus.

    When I was director of the Dakota Writing Project, it was a program begun by Northern, Dakota State, and Black Hills State. When USD and SDSU finally became part of it, we found that USD, in particular, was more interested in taking charge than in participating. The constant back-biting and under-cutting made it near impossible to administer a decent program. Eventually it devolved into a smarmy, self-promoting little clique which provided neither its fellows or the state education systems with the resources that it originally provided.

    Another problem is that Northern has allowed itself to be identified as a place that operates on a certain political ideology. SDSU had this problem a few years back, and there is quite a contrast between the way SDSU dealt with the matter and how NSU deals with it. It demonstrates how political considerations filter down and control a campus.

    I have made other comments at

    Even when students protest any attempts at providing academic rigor, they still want degrees from institutions that have sound academic reputations. Northern's problems have been two decades in the building. And they are essentially academic in nature. -+

  2. Each university has its own strengths. Closing any of them would be a poor decision.


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