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Finding the right one: Search for new BSU-NTC president begins with input from public

Larry Young, right, executive director of the Joint Economic Development Commission, offers input on the search for the next Bemidji State University and Northwest Technical College president. Sitting beside Young is Jim Bensen, chairman of "Bemidji Leads!" and retired BSU president. Pioneer Photo/Anne Williams

The search for the next president of Bemidji State University and Northwest Technical College has begun.

Two consultants from Witt/Kieffer, a search firm hired by the presidential Search Advisory Committee to gather input, met with city leaders, business owners, community members and local groups Monday to gather input.

BSU-NTC President Jon Quistgaard announced in October that he plans to retire this summer, after spending nine years as president of the university and seven years at the college.

The goal of the input sessions was for to gather public input about what qualifications, background experiences, visions and goals the community would like to see in the next president.

"Different things are needed at different times in history," said Katherine Will, a consultant with Witt/Kieffer. "We want to know what is needed now so we can go out and look for someone that fits."

Much of what the consultants heard revolved around the importance of maintaining a connection between the university and the community.

"This is a very dynamic community. We want to continue to build this community as the best place in the world to live in," said Jim Bensen, chairman of "Bemidji Leads!" and retired BSU president. "This leader needs to be a major player. We can't get this done without higher education in this community."

Dave Hengel, who heads the Headwaters Regional Development Commission's Center for Community Stewardship, suggested that the next presidential candidate be able to balance handling the university's academics with building connections outside the university.

"It needs to be someone who can make sure the groundwork laid by (Bensen) and (Quistgaard) with the community is continued to be built upon," Hengel said. "We've got an incredibly vibrant arts community here. The new president will have to be a big contributor to that element."

Larry Young, executive director of the Joint Economic Development Commission, suggested that the new president look at restructuring the core programs offered at BSU and NTC.

"The new university president should look at dropping some programs, but adding some, such as MBA programming," Young said. "We do have a lot of professional people who are driving on a weekly basis to University of Minnesota and Duluth. They would love the opportunity to expand their education."

Witt/Kieffer consultant Howard Jessamy pointed out the unique connection between BSU and NTC and asked what the next president should set as goals for the continued partnership.

"I think this person needs to recognize the importance of a technical education and the ability to have the students go between the two and take advantage of both of them," said Barbara Mountain, employee at First National Bank of Bemidji and member of the NTC Foundation board.

Young agreed, saying he has seen "a little bit of 'them' versus 'us.'"

"It is very important to have a unified system that is seamless," Young said.

Bemidji City Councilor Ron Johnson told the search firm consultants about projects that the city and the university have worked together one, such as the development of the Lake Bemidji West Shore Trail, outdoor recreation and the Bemidji Regional Event Center.

"There are a lot of good things happening between city government and the college, and it would be nice to see that continue," Johnson said.

Johnson also suggested that the next president focus on social issues, such as working to make student housing more efficient in neighborhoods.

On the business front, several comments were made about creating new links between local and regional businesses and student internships and employment.

Mountain said First National Bank hires BSU students to work while they attend school, but some student have difficulties transitioning from school to work.

"We've had a hard time integrating them into some of the positions we have in our bank," Mountain said. "The marketing aspect at both institutions (BSU and NTC) needs to be discussed with community members. There's a lack of communication."

Mike Smith, owner of MJB Home Center, said the next president should ask, "How can we retain more of the graduates that come out of this institution right here in this area?"

"I think there is some development that still needs to go on with some of the larger regional companies in northern Minnesota," Hengel said. "I think there is some room for improvement."

Bill Sanford, manager of Lakeland Public Television, added that "the community is a real resource for the university."

"Some of that student integration into the community could be researched a little more," Sanford said. "The next president should look into taking advantage of the community to help the university do good things."

Young added "People don't realize this is a knowledge community of extraordinary proportions. We need to be getting the word out."

The search firm consultants will write a detailed plan on what the specifications of the presidential candidate should be, based on the input they received through public input meetings and meeting with various constituent groups. Once the plan is in place, the search committee will review their overall plan.

"It is often deemed good that an outside group come in and get input because it is filtered through a neutral lens," Will said. "We hope there will be a community session for each candidate on campus."

Will said she and Jessamy strongly encourage people to submit nominations for the position. Electronic submissions should be sent by e-mail to Materials that must be mailed may be sent to Bemidji Search, c/o Witt/Kieffer, 7201 Wisconsin Ave., Suite 675, Bethesda, MD 20814.