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'Honk if you love the arts': Theater, art supporters protest outside BSU's Deputy Hall

Supporters of Bemidji State University's art and theater programs protested program cuts Monday in front of Deputy Hall. Dozens of people stood under the archway from 1 p.m. to dusk in very cold weather. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

With the wind chill nearing 10 degrees below zero Monday afternoon, Kim Karle, a small business owner in Bemidji, stood shivering as she held one end of a sign that read, "BSU performs major surgery, removes heart of Bemidji, fine arts culture."

Karle was one of dozens of protesters who stood underneath the archway in front of Deputy Hall, the administration building at Bemidji State University, holding signs, shouting cheers and asking passing drivers to "honk if you love the arts."

The protesters, made up of BSU students, faculty, retired staff, alumni and community members, came and went from the archway from noon to dusk Monday, detesting the changes set to take place at BSU and Northwest Technical College in the next two years.

BSU and NTC officials announced less than two weeks ago the two institutions would be taking a new direction, moving forward with fewer majors and becoming more "distinct." BSU-NTC President Richard Hanson unveiled a plan of recalibration to overcome a $5 million budget shortfall. According to Bill Maki, BSU's vice president for finance and administration, the budget shortfall is directly attributed to the state's $6.2 billion budget deficit.

The recalibration plan calls for cutting more than 30 staff positions between the two institutions, eliminating the art history and theater programs at BSU and the BSU men's indoor and outdoor track teams. The plan also adds three faculty positions to the areas of business and mass communications at BSU and seeks to enhance American Indian education, among other changes.

Karle attended BSU for almost four years before moving to California to finish her degree. Last summer, she opened her own business in Bemidji.

"As a small business owner, I worry about the effects (the cuts) will have on the community," she said. "The business that I do surrounds itself with art and artisans from around the Bemidji area. I worry we won't be able to sustain that."

Karle said she attended the protest because she sees the cuts to the theater and visual art programs as a "huge concern." She said the recalibration plan does not take into consideration the impact the changes will have on the community.

"Maybe (Hanson) needs to spend some time with people in the community and really figure out how it will actually affect Bemidji and the surrounding areas," Karle said.

Jeremiah Liend, who started as a BSU student in 1998, coordinated Monday's protest. Liend is majoring in theater and said he wants to do what he can to save his major.

Despite his own personal challenges to graduating on time, Liend said BSU has given him great opportunities in theater and the arts. He said he does not understand why eliminating programs is part of the recalibration efforts.

"When you restructure a building, you don't tear it down to the ground and then start over," he said. "You fix what is wrong with the building."

Liend said he suggests the BSU theater program learn to create enough revenue streams for it to maintain itself for free.

"The Paul Bunyan Playhouse is going to have a really hard time maintaining their space off-season without the trained tactical professionals that are constantly getting cranked out of BSU," Liend added.

Wearing a white hat with a BSU logo on the front, retired professor of geography Charlie Parsons stood on the sidewalk of Birchmont Drive as a member of the protest. Parsons started as a faculty member at BSU in 1976 and retired six years ago.

"The reason I stayed in part was because you'd get to go perform and watch musical things on campus," he said. "I mean, all our Christmas shopping is art sales."

Parsons talked of the importance of Bangsberg Fine Arts Complex, the building that houses many of the music and theater classes at BSU.

"When this was built, this was the most expensive per-foot building the state of Minnesota ever built for theater and music," Parsons said. "Now we're whacking music and we're killing theater. That's a huge investment, and we're whacking that out in order to find a different way."

Parsons said when he started as a faculty member at BSU, there were roughly 250 faculty members and 3,000 students. Today, he said, there are fewer than 140 faculty members and 5,000 students.

"Exactly what is wrong with the (Minnesota State Colleges and Universities) formula that makes us expendable?" he asked. "I think it's a state-level issue. I don't even fault the president for making these choices, because the budget is determined in St. Paul. The impact here with these programs is vast. No one seems to know that."

According to Maki, the primary reason the theater program is being eliminated is because of low student enrollment and high maintenance costs. After this year's juniors and seniors finish their degrees in theater (by the spring of 2012), and the program is officially eliminated, Maki estimates the elimination of the program will save BSU $250,000.

"We were concerned of being able to financially support the program looking forward," Maki said.

In a letter he wrote to Hanson, which he also posted on his personal blog, Liend suggested BSU and NTC students pay $1 to see a theater performance, which is currently free for students. He also suggested the university seek outside funding from grants.

But Maki said these efforts would not be enough because the recalibration plan is more than fixing financial woes.

"I don't believe raising the money costs would be enough to save some programs," Maki said. "The president has stated the recalibration is more than just about doing things financially, it is also about better utilizing the human and financial resources indirectly associated with the programs."

While in the past, Hanson stated some programs may not have an impact on the community, Maki said the theater program will likely affect the community.

"The theater program has been an important part of the community, and hopefully there will be some way to preserve some of the things that BSU does to the community," he said. "As we keep moving forward, I'm not sure what it will look like yet without the academic going along with it."

Maki said the changes set to take place in the coming years are a local decision that needed to be done to balance the budget.

When asked to comment on Monday's protest, Maki said he would not have expected anything less from students.

"I would expect students and others to be very passionate about losing something or having their particular programs or interest impacted, so the protest is a way to express those feelings," Maki said. "That is what the role of university is, to provide a forum for people to express diverse opinions. They are making clear what their position is regarding this action. We are supportive of that. We are glad there is that much passion and that they care about what happens."'

Hanson could not be reached for comment. BSU spokesperson Andy Bartlett stated in an e-mail Hanson was unavailable this week.

For details about the BSU-NTC recalibration plan, visit