Back in the beginning, when Bemidji Normal School was in its early years, my mother attended the school for a short period of time. But finances were difficult; she left and took a job in Erskine, Minn. My father attended St. Olaf College and returned home to Erskine to take over the family farm. Dad met and married my mother and they raised a daughter and two sons. My brother Kermit and I both attended Bemidji State Teachers College. I enrolled in 1955 with my sweetheart and wife to be, Nancy Berge, and we are both graduates of BSU.

Jim Bensen
Jim Bensen

Bemidji State was a “teacher’s college” when we started, and two years later it was re-established as Bemidji State College. The 1955 freshman class was huge, bringing the overall enrollment to 600-plus students. It had six buildings: Deputy Hall, Memorial Hall (physical education and athletics), the Laboratory School, football stadium, Sanford Hall and Birch Hall. There were two old wooden “military barracks” where Sattgast Hall is now located. The area along the lake held athletic fields and there was a city forest and “zoo” north of Birch Hall. The Minnesota Vikings, when they were first established, held their training camp activities in this space along with the football stadium.

The curriculum was primarily teacher education oriented, and we had outstanding professors. With the small enrollment one usually had an opportunity to take a class from most of them.

I loved teaching, and took a position to teach and coach for three years in Erskine. With two young children, we left the home town for graduate work, earning a master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin-Stout and a doctorate at Penn State and returned to Stout as a faculty member. I taught and served in senior administration for 24 years at Stout, five years as president of Dunwoody College of Technology and then was appointed president of Bemidji State University in 1994.

We returned home to our alma mater with excitement and anticipation. I was very familiar with Bemidji State University, having visited it frequently. It had expanded its enrollment to over 6,000 students at one time, and this had “settled” to 5,000-plus students, where it is today. The physical plant expanded to more than 35 buildings, reaching out to Bemidji Avenue, and it is one of the most beautiful campuses in the nation, with a long shoreline on Lake Bemidji. The one tunnel, from “Old Main” to the Laboratory School, had expanded throughout the campus.

The curriculum expanded to meet the needs of a broad base of interests and we continued to attract excellent faculty to provide instruction and scholarship. The larger programs today are in Business, Nursing, Science & Technology, Education, Social Work and Music. A continued focus on Native American studies provides a reach into our local tribes. BSU is also involved in a large number of international experiences to enhance faculty and student educational experiences. International education includes students from throughout the world, with the longest established program being EuroSpring in Oxford, England.

I arrived one year ahead of the merger of the Minnesota Technical College System, Community College System and the State University System. This promised major change in working collaboratively between the systems. Bemidji State took a leadership position in working with the two-year systems and built a number of opportunities for students and faculty to enhance education.

On my second day on campus as its new president, I was informed when meeting with the vice presidents that we were not going to make payroll on May 1. To my surprise, they responded, “didn’t they tell you this when you were hired?” This brought about an aggressive mode of change at Bemidji State, with a major layoff of people on the first day of the second semester and an implementation of a plan to rebuild the university to attract more students. Within a year we were back on target.

One of the features of change was to place the university in front of our regional communities. During my first three years as president of BSU we spent a full day in 30 communities. The day started with breakfast, being on the radio, interviewed by the local newspaper, speaking to students and faculty at the high school about the wonderful world of tomorrow, hosting community leaders for lunch to offer being a resource for their community, visiting companies to explore opportunities and ending with 100 or more alumni for an update. In each case we were informed that a university had never dedicated a full day in their community and over the three years we acquired over $1 million for scholarships, research and development projects and unique collaborations.

Music, opera theater and the visual arts are exceptional at the university and they reach widely into our communities. Early on athletics were non-scholarship, but moved into NCAA Division II and now participate in one of the most accomplished athletic conferences in the nation. An issue arose during my presidency that Division II hockey would be dropped nationally by the NCAA and Bemidji State, having won 13 national championships, was a powerhouse in this sport. With community commitment to support it, we were able to move our program up to Division I, which also required BSU to add women’s hockey.

We implemented dozens of innovations at BSU, based on “Planning From the Future” and re-invented higher education. During this time Bemidji State was recognized with numerous awards as being tops in the nation with its new ventures. We were leaders in distance learning in the Upper Midwest which included huge centers on the Minnesota Iron Range and in Toronto. Bemidji State also led the 50-plus campuses in the system in on-line programs, which continues today.

Bemidji State’s Social Work Program established a Post-Doctorate Summer Workshop in the ancient city of Dubrovnik, Croatia. Scholars from more than 50 universities throughout the world would propose papers, debate and then published an online findings as a first in the world.

We installed a “servant leadership” culture, and Bemidji State was the first university in the nation to conduct an “experimental” accreditation process as a higher education institution.

I retired as president in 2001, and still have an office at the BSU Foundation. Nancy and I continue to support the university in any way that we can. Jon Quistgaard, Dick Hanson and currently, Faith Hensrud, have followed me as presidents and continue to provide outstanding leadership.

Bemidji State University over its 100 years has stayed ahead of its time in providing a tremendous asset to our community. Thousands of graduates have spread throughout the world in the quest to better our society in thousands of ways. In Bemidji we feel this every day. The future is indeed very bright.