Education

Interim president hopes to help St. Cloud State University find path forward

St. Cloud State University School of Music 02
Graduates walk with their families near Atwood Memorial Center during St. Cloud State University spring semester commencement ceremonies.
Dave Schwarz | The St. Cloud Times via AP 2020

Larry Dietz spent 50 years as a higher education administrator, most recently as president of Illinois State University, before retiring in 2021.

It was the opportunity to help another, albeit smaller, Midwestern institution facing significant challenges that lured him out of retirement.

Dietz, who started last week as interim president of St. Cloud State University, said he wasn’t looking for a long-term gig, but missed being involved in higher education.

“I really felt like I had more to give,” he said during an interview on Tuesday.

Man in suit smiles
Larry Dietz, the new interim St. Cloud State University president.
Courtesy of St. Cloud State University

Dietz will lead SCSU for two years while the university searches for a permanent president to replace Robbyn Wacker, who stepped down when her contract expired this year.

Dietz isn’t promising to fix all the university’s challenges, including a drop in student enrollment, budget deficit and cuts to programs and faculty.

“I think it’s a good opportunity to help an institution that needs some help,” Dietz said. “Hopefully I’m the right person to do that for a time, and we can have some things settle down, make a transition and move forward.”

St. Cloud State’s student enrollment has declined from a peak of more than 18,000 students in 2010 to just over 10,000, due in part to demographics, the COVID-19 pandemic and changing attitudes toward higher education.

Higher education institutions across the country but especially in the Midwest are facing similar enrollment declines. He said he hopes SCSU can stabilize enrollment, improve student retention and “build in some areas where students really want to enroll.”

“That’ll help us grow a little bit,” he said. “But I think the idea that we’re going to get back to where we were at one point in time is probably not realistic.”

Last month, the university eliminated about 90 programs and 54 faculty positions to help correct a structural budget deficit. University officials said the programs targeted for cuts had low numbers, and the vast majority of SCSU students are enrolled in the remaining 94 degree programs.

St. Cloud State’s faculty association called the plan “deeply flawed” and said it could lead to further enrollment losses. The association said faculty, staff and students should have had more input on how to resolve the budget deficit.

Dietz said he didn’t have input into the university’s five-year budget plan, but he doesn’t intend to reverse the cuts.

“Tough decisions had to be made,” he said. “If you have small programs with small numbers in them, then in order to keep those, you’ve got to subsidize them somewhere. And we didn’t have the subsidy from the other places to keep something that wasn’t making its way on its own.”

A college campus
Larry Dietz will lead SCSU for two years while the university searches for a permanent president to replace Robbyn Wacker
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

Dietz expressed mixed views about SCSU’s recent push to expand online education as a way to boost enrollment. Some faculty and state higher ed officials raised concerns about the university’s contract with a for-profit company to manage the programs in exchange for half of the tuition revenue.

Dietz said he believes online courses have a place, and can be convenient especially for those with jobs or family, but they’re “not the panacea.” 

“For the most part, I think traditional-age students really want that collegiate experience, which includes in the classroom, but a lot of out-of-classroom opportunity, too,” he said. 

Dietz said the university will be taking a look at its facilities to see if there are ways to attract more students back to campus. A new master plan could include demolishing some shuttered buildings to create more green space and views of the Mississippi River, he said.

“We need more students walking around here and creating a more vibrant campus,” he said. “But we also need to get rid of some of these buildings that are closed. And I think that’ll happen.”