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Richard Hanson: Maximizing opportunity, minimizing duplication

At a time when traditional structures and pathways of American higher education are undergoing creative disruption, Northwest Technical College and Bemidji State University are themselves at the crossroads of innovation.

The faculty, staff and administrators of NTC persistently adapt their curriculum to the region’s changing job market. Just two years from its 50th anniversary, the college is adding such academic programs as human resources and maintenance mechanic/millwright, while partnering with local manufacturers on promising new approaches to workforce training.

At BSU, which will mark its centennial in 2019, leaders strive to attract new international students and send more U.S. students abroad so all can succeed as global citizens. University faculty are experimenting with alternative modes of teaching, such as delivering lectures via the Internet and using class time for problem solving and analysis with students.

Now, the two sister schools are on the threshold of possible change from which both stand to gain.

At my request as president of both institutions, they will explore together whether and how they might better serve their students and the entire region by leveraging mutual strengths, while retaining their own distinct roles and identities. I have charged a joint study group of faculty, staff and students to investigate those questions over approximately the next nine months and then make a recommendation to me on the best way forward.

During my initial consultations with faculty at BSU and NTC, I have outlined a future in which Northwest Technical College might become the “fourth college” of Bemidji State, joining BSU’s three existing colleges, which actually are groupings of academic departments, not separate institutions.

This shorthand phrase is handy for our internal discussions, but it is potentially misleading, especially as portrayed by some in an April 6 Bemidji Pioneer article. I have no expectation that NTC, its campus or its students will be absorbed into BSU or depart from its mission of delivering high-quality technical education. Likewise, BSU’s stature as a comprehensive university will not be diminished. It will continue to serve students with superb faculty and stellar programs in the professions and the liberal arts.

Rather, we have an opportunity to thoughtfully plan the next step in the continued evolution of an alignment between the two schools, a process that began in 2005 when my predecessor, Jon Quistgaard, became the first joint president of BSU and NTC.

Since then, their administrative integration has been swift and impressive. They are treated as a single financial unit within the Minnesota System of Colleges and Universities, although NTC’s budget has been on a financial roller coaster due to its small size and fluctuating enrollment. Individual administrators have dual responsibility for information technology, communications, finance, student services and financial aid at both institutions, saving taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. NTC students can and do live on the BSU campus, taking full advantage of its amenities.

Integration of the schools’ respective academic programs would seem to be the next frontier, but even in that way, BSU and NTC already are strongly connected. The new Bemidji School of Nursing, which encompasses programs at both schools, is enabling nationally accredited nursing education, with increased degree offerings and more streamlined transfers from one school to another. NTC has multiple programs that allow its students to complete a two-year degree and move directly into a four-year degree program at BSU, including accounting, applied engineering and technology management.

I think it makes obvious sense to seek additional opportunities for these two institutions, located just minutes apart, to maximize educational opportunity, minimize duplication, improve financial stability and serve students in creative new ways that we can only imagine. The risks are not entirely known but likely will prove manageable if we are deliberate and thorough. The upside potential is virtually unlimited. I look forward to the conversation.

Richard Hanson, Ph.D., is president of Bemidji State University and Northwest Technical College in Bemidji.