The right time for Hanson: Retiring BSU president says he’ll miss the relationships developed over six years

BEMIDJI--The walls are wood-paneled and dotted with old pictures. One is black and white, and shows a huge man, lying like Gulliver, surrounded by children. This is Dr. Richard Hanson, BSU's 10th president.

Dr. Richard Hanson, BSU’s 10th president, announced his retirement last week after six years leading the university and Northwest Technical College. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI-The walls are wood-paneled and dotted with old pictures. One is black and white, and shows a huge man, lying like Gulliver, surrounded by children. This is Dr. Richard Hanson, BSU's 10th president.

He leans back in his chair, smiles and puts a large foot on the small table in his office.

"Some people would say, 'Is there ever a right time?' " he muses. "For me, well. I'm 65, going to be 66. Three grandkids ...."

Retirement for Hanson seemed a natural relaxant Wednesday in his third-floor office overlooking Lake Bemidji. A day before, he had announced he will be leaving the university in June, after six years as president and 43 years in higher education.

In the meantime, he begins anecdotes with "I shouldn't tell you this," and ends them with "That's my story, and I'm sticking to it." When asked a question, he often gives a joke answer before giving his real one. He cites oversharing on social media and the political rise of Donald Trump as evidence universities still have work to do.


After retiring, Hanson doesn't plan to stay in Bemidji. That's a decision left to his wife, he said, but he knows he might never again see many of his co-workers.

"You give up a consistent way of life, you give up relationships," he said. "That makes it difficult, because you work pretty hard with folks to get things done."

Long days

Since 2010, Hanson has spent long days behind a desk the same color as the caramel walls.

Here, he's run one of the more challenging operations anywhere in higher education: BSU and Bemidji's Northwest Technical College share most of their administrators, including the president, who is expected to align the schools while preserving their distinct missions.

"Two campuses, two communities, two sets of constituents," Hanson said. "I find it extraordinarily complicated and really challenging."

One of Hanson's first moves as president was a "draconian" budget cut that didn't endear him to the campus community, he said. But he thinks they came around.

In his time, Hanson led a fundraising campaign-set to conclude in June after five years-that will bring $35 million to BSU for scholarships and academic investment. He oversaw construction projects like the soon-to-arrive University Heights apartment complex. And he pushed to upgrade athletic facilities and positioned the school to add more sports in the future.


"The thing I admire most about Dick is he allows other people to do their job," said Dr. Martin Tadlock, BSU's provost and vice president for academic affairs. "He supports them. He encourages them. That is a real strength that he has."

Hanson has seen great tragedy.

He sighs, gets up from his chair and grabs a green rubber bracelet from his desk. It reads: "S.O.S. SAVE OUR STUDENTS."

In separate incidents last winter, one female student died and another was hospitalized after they were discovered alone in the cold. Alcohol was involved in the fatality, police said, and might have been involved in the other incident.

"It's just stunning when you realize, 'Oh, my. We failed that kid,'" Hanson said. "For some reason, she lost her way, and there was nobody to take her hand. That can't happen."

Hanson said the same thing did happen when he worked at North Dakota State University.

Delivering bad news to families on phone calls, he said, has a way of shaking your strength.

These are problems he knows bracelets can't solve.


'There's no book'

Once upon a time, he was the world's largest preschool teacher. He points to a black and white picture on the wall.

For a class project, a younger but still huge Hanson lied on a piece of drawing paper on the floor. One sheet wasn't enough, so his students grabbed another. Hanson sees the picture and still remembers the name of the 4-year-old boy who declared Hanson a "two-sheeter."

"My body's a little big," he says, shrugs and smiles.

Before he was an administrator, Hanson taught courses in child development and family relations. As a student, he once told a professor he wanted to be a college president. That title, and the office it comes with, can cloud minds. Hanson asserted it hasn't clouded his.

"Good leaders always remember who they're working for," he said. "There's one reason that we're here: to provide experiences so our students can succeed." That, he said, is what makes the tragedies so hard.

Hanson doesn't have many hobbies. He hates golf and isn't particularly skilled in carpentry. Probably, he said, he'll end up working for an organization focusing on education or some other aspect of public life. He's volunteered with Habitat for Humanity in the past.

As of Wednesday, Hanson had three kids of his own-all daughters-and two grandchildren, with a third coming any day now. He and his wife plan to move closer to them once he retires.


Hanson's kids still won't talk about the Christmases from their childhood. Convinced the holiday was a waste of time, Hanson for many years woke his girls at 4 a.m. on December 25, piled them into the family's van and spent the morning delivering gifts to needy children. Hanson believes he was justified, because of the people his kids became.

Being a parent, he said, is a lot like being a president.

"There's no book," he said.

He made no such statement about grandparenting.

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