Bemidji State's overhaul means expanding some programs, cutting others

BSU theater major
Bemidji State University theater major Jesse Villarreal, seen here on the BSU campus on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2011, is angry that the theater department is among four programs that will be eliminated as part of budget cuts at BSU and Northwest Technical College.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Bemidji State University theater major Jesse Villarreal is passionate about acting.

He's a senior at BSU and rehearsing the part of Theseus in the spring production of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." But the play will be one of the final productions for BSU theater students, as the theater department was axed as part of a big budget overhaul.

That's disheartening to Villarreal, one of 18 theatre majors. He sees theater as an important part of a liberal arts education.

"To see it get cut is extremely frustrating," he said. "It is unimaginably depressing... And, yes, I am angry about it."

The theater department at BSU is one of the casualties of an effort by Minnesota state colleges and universities to tighten their belts. Anticipating funding cuts as lawmakers deal with a $6.2 billion dollar state budget shortfall, many campuses have already chopped programs and positions.

At Bemidji State University and its sister campus, Northwest Technical College, administrators have eliminated academic programs, dropped sports teams, and cut faculty and staff positions. The budgetary retooling includes both winners and losers.

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Among the losers was the theater department, which costs BSU $250,000 a year. The program will run one more year to allow juniors and seniors to graduate. When it's gone, two assistant professors will lose their jobs.

Practicing lines
Bemidji State University students read through lines to prepare for their spring production of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," on the BSU campus on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2011. The play will be among the last productions for the department, which will be eliminated after the next academic year.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

"It sucks how when there's cuts in Minnesota, arts is always the first on the chopping block," Villarreal said. "And that's just how it is. But I will fight tooth and nail, every last gasp."

Budget cuts will also eliminate the art history program at BSU. But it's not just the fine arts that suffer. College officials cut 33 faculty jobs from 18 other programs, including history, mathematics, computer sciences and modern languages.

BSU also dropped its men's indoor and outdoor track teams. At Northwest Technical College, officials eliminated the massage therapy and environmental landscape programs. In all, the moves eliminate some 50 jobs.

Critics of the cuts have labeled Richard Hanson, newly appointed president of BSU and Northwest Technical College, a hatchet man. But Hanson said the moves were necessary to fix a two-year, $5 million budget shortfall.

"When it comes to your ox that's getting gored, if it's your program or your reality, people react." Hanson said. "And you've got to love them for it. I mean, that's human... But that's one of the responsibilities of leadership, is to define reality. And that's what we're trying to do."

BSU president
Bemidji State University and Northwest Technical College President Richard Hanson, seen here on the BSU campus on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2011, calls recent budget cuts a "recalibration." He said it will ultimately make the university stronger.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

The new reality for college campuses across the state means fewer resources. But it doesn't mean all programs are taking a hit. Administrators are shifting dollars into emerging programs. They're looking for ways to make their campuses more distinctive.

At BSU, for example, a so-called "recalibration" of resources will add faculty positions to the business and mass communication departments. Both programs are attracting more students.

Another winner at BSU is the American Indian Resource Center and the Ojibwe language program. While the programs won't receive additional staff yet, administrators want to expand them so they become nationally distinctive. In fact, they'll announce a capital campaign in the next few months.

Ojibwe language professor Anton Treuer said the university could play a more significant role in saving the language, which has few fluent speakers.

"One of the critical needs we have is developing an Ojibwe teacher training program, so that we can develop fluent speakers who are credentialed as teachers of the language," Treuer said. "I think this would be a natural segue."

Bemidji State University
Officials at Bemidji State University, seen here in February 2011, are planning big budget cuts to meet a $5 million shortfall over the next two years. The planned cuts include dropping some academic programs and sports, as well as eliminating about 50 faculty and staff jobs.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

State higher education officials say budget retooling is being driven partly by the recession. But there's also a long-term strategy at work.

As more baby boomers retire, there will be fewer taxpayers in the future. That means colleges and universities will have to be leaner and more focused.

Scott Olson, interim vice chancellor for academic and student affairs for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, said a big transformation is underway.

"We are in kind of uncharted territory, and that's why campuses are trying to be as careful as they can, and why you do hear words like recalibration, reengineering and so on," Olson said. "We're really having to re-imagine the work we're doing."

The extent of cuts to higher education will be up to lawmakers. Republicans in the majority have indicated they want to cut funding. They may face a showdown with Gov. Mark Dayton, who announces his budget plan this week.