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'No greater steward': BSU Education-Art Building to become Bensen Hall

The Education-Art Building on the Bemidji State University campus will be renamed in honor of Jim Bensen, president emeritus of the university, in a Friday morning ceremony outside of the building. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI – The building in which Jim Bensen performed his student-teaching will soon be renamed in his honor.

The Education-Art Building on the Bemidji State University campus is slated to be renamed Bensen Hall. A ceremony marking the change starts at 9:30 a.m. Friday on the lawn outside of the building. A public reception will follow at the David Park House.

“It’s a tremendous place, a great honor,” said Bensen, the only BSU alumnus to become president of the university.

Bensen, an Erskine, Minn., native, graduated BSU in 1959 with a degree in industrial education. He obtained a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Stout and a doctorate from Pennsylvania State University with specialties in curriculum, coordination, administration and educational development.

He served as BSU’s eighth president, from July 1994 to August 2001.

“Jim was a very dynamic president,” recalled Marla Patrias, chief development officer for the BSU Foundation. “He was very outwardly focused and connected.”

Patrias formerly was the director of the BSU Alumni Association and, prior to that, she served as the director of major gifts and planned giving for the Foundation.

“(Bensen) was a very strong president on campus, but he really saw the benefit of outside partnerships and he really worked to engage that,” Patrias said.

One of his initiatives was Community Commitment Day, when BSU representatives would go to regional communities to celebrate the university and sell it as a regional asset.

Bensen said Twin Cities residents seemed to view Bemidji State as the furthest college to which students could attend school and still be charged in-state tuition.

“We turned that around,” he said. “It sort of became the idea of the lake, the learning, the life, the great learning center of the north.”

Campus representatives would go to a neighboring city for the day and meet with community leaders, media groups and alumni in that region.

Bensen said BSU visited about 30 other communities.

“It was a lot of fun,” he said. “We took the university out through the state, particularly in the northern half of the state.”

BSU and community representatives would discuss potential partnerships to develop tomorrow’s leaders and innovators.

“We wanted them to think of Bemidji State as their university,” Bensen said.

Patrias, who accompanied Bensen on such tours, said he flourished in these meetings.

“It really was successful,” she said. “We built and bridged relationships with those communities.”

Later, after Mankato and Moorhead both changed their institutions’ names to Minnesota State, the state of Minnesota asked other colleges to consider their current names and whether a change would be beneficial.

Bemidji State viewed that as an opportunity to better brand itself. BSU engaged the community, faculty and alumni as it considered the most appropriate name for itself. After much debate, Bensen brought to the state a recommendation that BSU be renamed the University of Northern Minnesota.

“We felt it would broaden our reach … help place us geographically,” Patrias said.

But the state rejected it, clarifying that the process was not meant to identify a completely new name, but to decide whether the university should be renamed Minnesota State University, Bemidji.

So it stayed Bemidji State University.

“We had looked at the bigger picture of northern Minnesota,” Bensen said.

BSU, in a 2000 release announcing Bensen’s decision to retire, credited Bensen with a variety of accomplishments, including:

-- Re-accreditation by the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, the first review of BSU by the NCA in 30 years.

-- Integration of BSU into Minnesota State Colleges and Universities.

-- Renovation of A.C. Clark Library.

-- National recognition of BSU for innovation and excellence.

-- Advancement of technology throughout campus.

-- Acquisition of funds from the Legislature to construct the American Indian Resource Center at BSU.

-- Expansion of support from alumni, donors and foundations.

Patrias said Bensen particularly loved meeting with students and alumni.

“Jim was fabulous with students,” she said. “He loved to tell stories and engage with donors.”

Despite retiring from a traditional job, Bensen still has an office on campus.

“My wife (Nancy, also a BSU graduate) says I didn’t really retire, I just went off the payroll and that’s probably accurate,” Bensen said.

He remains an active community leader and enthusiastic university supporter. Bensen was among a small group of people who in 2003 launched “Bemidji Leads!” and today remains the chairman of the organization.

“I can think of no greater steward in the Bemidji region than Jim Bensen,” said Dave Hengel, executive director of Greater Bemidji and “Bemidji Leads!” steward.

Bensen accepted the BSU presidency after five years of serving as president of Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis.

The majority of his career, though, was spent at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, where he was dean of the School of Industry and Technology.

“We ran programs all over the world,” Bensen said. “I never dreamt I would leave Stout. I had a phenomenal relationship with the whole state there.”

When an executive search firm called him about the opening at Dunwoody, Bensen initially said he could not imagine leaving his current position. As a follow-up, the caller asked Bensen to share his thoughts, for the Dunwoody board, about what he himself would be looking for in a presidential candidate. He rattled off a few notes and the caller invited him to meet with the board.

Bensen soon was offered the job as president and CEO of Dunwoody, the only private, nonprofit technical college in the Upper Midwest.

“Here came the chance to take over the helm of a very key institution,” Bensen said. “It was a great experience.”

While he thoroughly enjoyed his time at Dunwoody, Bensen said he missed some of the aspects of a larger university: the residential life program, arts, theater and athletics.

He came to BSU in July 1994. In his first year, he was asked to tell bedtime stories to students in the residential life program. He loved it and continued to do it every year of his presidency.

“I missed that,” he said of campus life. “I love students.”

For a list of homecoming events, click here.