'Be curious': New St. Cloud State head brings love of learning to job

New SCSU president Robbyn Wacker
Robbyn Wacker will be inaugurated Monday as St. Cloud State University's president. In a community that has struggled with its growing diversity, Wacker is St. Cloud State's first permanent woman president -- and its first openly gay one.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

When Robbyn Wacker sees international students on her university's campus, trying to navigate an unfamiliar college campus for the first time, she can relate.

Wacker is a first-generation college student whose own parents never finished high school.

Her grandparents were German immigrants who fled Russia to avoid persecution by the Bolsheviks. They settled near Greeley, Colo., where her mom grew up working in the beet fields and quit high school in the Great Depression.

"They made sure I had all the things they didn't have, just in terms of experiences," Wacker said. "But it was that support and then that value of education, that education was important."

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

It paid off for Wacker, who took over as president of St. Cloud State University in July. She will be officially inaugurated Monday as the university's first permanent president since the death of Earl Potter in a car crash in June 2016.

Like other higher education institutions, St. Cloud State faces daunting challenges, including declining enrollment. But Wacker said she's optimistic about the future of the university, which she calls "an institution that has all the right things in place."

New SCSU president Robbyn Wacker
Shahzad Ahmad watches as Robbyn Wacker greets Dr. Umesh Gupta from JK Lakshmipat University in India.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

"We have the academics. We have the right quality of faculty and staff who are committed to the students. We want students to succeed," she said.

Wacker earned a doctorate degree from Iowa State University and taught gerontology — the study of aging — before becoming an administrator at Northern Colorado University.

But she hasn't forgotten what it's like to be a fish out of water in an unfamiliar place — an experience she's reliving again as a newcomer to Minnesota.

"Everything is different," she said. "Everything is new, from where are you going to shop and where are you going to get a haircut to how do you find a doctor? It made me think about our students who come here and who's trying to figure out the navigation of this place."

In Wacker's office sits the backpack she carries around campus instead of a briefcase. On her desk is a tin lunchbox featuring her favorite character, Curious George, whom she calls "a great role model."

"There's a principle by which I try to live my life, and it really is to be curious," she said. "In higher education, that should be one of the tenets that we teach people ... to come in and ask, 'Why?'"

Wacker said the lunchbox is also a great icebreaker with students.

"I have a backpack. I have a lunch box. I am somebody that had a trajectory and a history just like them," she said. "I'm not a president that's up on the fourth floor, not accessible and visible. I'm a person they can relate to and talk to."

New SCSU president Robbyn Wacker
Like other higher education institutions, St. Cloud State faces daunting challenges, including declining enrollment. But Robbyn Wacker says that she's optimistic about the university's future.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

That visibility has earned Wacker supporters like Wanda Overland, the university's vice president for student life and development, who praised Wacker's "warmth and her availability, and just her vision."

"We're very excited about what this will do for our campus community and certainly the broader region in St. Cloud as a whole," Overland said.

Like other higher education institutions, St. Cloud State is struggling with enrollment declines, budget squeezes and competition from online and for-profit colleges as well as a tight labor market.

According to St. Cloud State's unofficial enrollment numbers released last week, it has a total of 13,467 students this fall. That's down almost 2,000 students from four years ago.

Wacker sees the current disruption in higher education as an opportunity. She said the university needs to reorganize itself to compete in a changing landscape where full-time students right out of high school are no longer the sole focus.

"We know we have other students that are out there that could benefit from our education — working parents or working adults, moms and dads who are stay at home and want to finish their degrees, employees that want to pivot to a different career," she said. "And so we're going to reach out to different audiences and provide them access in different ways."

The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Board of Trustees chose Wacker over three other finalists for the St. Cloud State position.

New SCSU president Robbyn Wacker
Robbyn Wacker enjoys lunch with a delegation from South Africa who were visiting St. Cloud State University.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Chancellor Devinder Malhotra called her a "visionary leader" who "understands the challenges and opportunities of a public university in this day and age."

"She's a pragmatist, but yet she has never lost the desire to dream big, which is something the university has always aspired to do," Malhotra said.

At a university where the student body and the St. Cloud community are getting more diverse, it's notable that Wacker will be the first permanent woman president — and the first openly gay one.

Wacker doesn't spend much time dwelling on those firsts. She said her parents always supported her even when she chose a less traditional path — like in fifth grade, when she wanted to play flag football and their response was sure, why not?

"What I really appreciate the significance of, of my being in this role, is just to say to students, 'Shape your own future,'" she said. "'Don't let others shape it and say that you have to be limited about what you aspire to be because of your identities. Go out and change the world to make a difference.'"