In 1958, when John Neumaier took over as president of the then-Moorhead State College, there was “great inequality” in state support for colleges and universities.

In 1958, when John Neumaier took over as president of the then-Moorhead State College, there was “great inequality” in state support for colleges and universities.

Junior and state colleges like Moorhead State were not funded at the same level of the state’s land grant research school, the University of Minnesota, Neumaier said during a panel Friday in which the four living Minnesota State University Moorhead presidents shared perspectives about their tenures.

Neumaier said he tried to build up the reputation of the school by hiring faculty members from all over the nation and world and expanding departments and course offerings. Eventually, one Minneapolis Tribune columnist heralded the college as “the Harvard of the Midwest,” he said.

Roland Dille, Neumaier’s successor, credited him with proving to the state that Moorhead was deserving of investment.

Neumaier, Dille said, defended “our right to be as good as we wanted.”

Combined, the presidents at Friday’s panel represent 55 years at the helm of the college, four people who’ve led the school for nearly 45 percent of its existence.  

Since its founding as the Moorhead Normal School in 1888, the school has only had ten presidents.

Neumaier served from 1958 to 1968, Dille from 1968 to 1994, Roland Barden from 1994 to 2008 and Edna Szymanski ever since. All four recounted on Friday their triumphs, challenges and favorite memories while on campus.

The presidents all shared Neumaier’s struggle for state funding.

Later on, the state support they had sought began to decline under then-Gov. Jesse Ventura, Barden said.

The one-time model that students would pay a third of education costs and state appropriations would cover the other two-thirds has deteriorated to the point that the ratio has reversed.

Today, 63 percent of an MSUM student’s education is funded through tuition.

“Tuition grieves me. It grieved me so much at the time,” Barden said.

“Public policy with respect to the student cost of higher education is poor,” he added.

Szymanski attributed the change to a public mindset shift about the value of higher education. She said a more educated populace used to be valued by society, but now it’s shifted to valuing individuals.

The presidents discussed other times of great change and challenge to the school.

After Dille took over in 1968, it was a turbulent time for the nation and especially its students. Protests against an unpopular war in Vietnam were erupting all over and student demonstrations were violently disrupted. At Kent State University, four students were killed in a confrontation with the Ohio National Guard in May 1970.

During that time, Dille launched Project E-Quality to actively seek minority students. Initially, he said that idea was not greeted by much support from the community. He called it a success because many of those students graduated from MSUM and went on to graduate and professional school.

Szymanski cited a recent move to a “student-success” enrollment model at the school as one of her biggest challenges.

Instead of admitting students who are not prepared to be successful, the school refers them to community colleges and even waives the application fee for those programs. Since it started, enrollment has dropped by about 3.5 percent and the school faces a nearly $5 million deficit, she said.

“Our responsibility to help students start where they will be more likely to be successful,” she said.

She also defended the unification of state schools under the Minnesota State College and Universities System, established in 1995.

“I consider of the advent of the system to be a wonderful thing for the sake of the student.”

Earlier, Dille had criticized the “merger” for taking away some of the school’s freedom.

The foursome also took time to highlight favorite memories and fond experiences with faculty members and students.

That brought tears from Szymanski, who will retire at the end of this year, as she acknowledged faculty members who have supported students and funded scholarships over the years.

“So many of these people give so much money for scholarships, not out of their excess, but they are giving because they believe,” she said.

Barden said the school’s many community events, including the Fourth of July celebration, are among his favorite memories. He said he enjoyed the events where MSUM “was inviting our community and our neighbors and people we depended on for support” to experience the campus.
“Their time here was well-spent,” he said.