She discusses Golden Eagle sports, online learning, UMN Crookston strengths and challenges, equine program, and student mental health and well-being.

She held a “conversation” with the UMN Crookston campus community and held a “conversation” with the wider community. She also attended the Torch & Shield Awards Banquet and even hopped on a horse for a ride around the University Teaching and Outreach Center arena.

And, also, during first-year University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel’s second visit to the Crookston campus, she sat down for a chat with the media to touch on a variety of topics. (She visited UMN Crookston in December 2018 after being named the sole finalist to success Eric Kaler as U of M president.)

Here are the highlights:

• The ongoing struggles of the UMN Crookston Golden Eagles football program, and if she’s concerned about the long-term viability of the program in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference – Gabel didn’t specifically mention the Golden Eagle football team in answering the question. She said individual sports teams and athletic programs across the U of M system are constantly being looked at and questions are constantly being asked. She said she looks at college athletics as the “front porch” of a university campus, and wants students and the community to have “robust experiences” with student wellness always at the center.

Athletics do “more for a community than just the game itself,” Gabel noted, adding that in working with chancellors at the U of M system campuses “hard questions” are being asked when necessary. 

• On UMN Crookston continuing to be a leader in online education – Gabel, who taught online courses when it was in its infancy in 1998, said she’s a “fan” of online learning, and said that it has become more ubiquitous as technology has advanced, to the point that even if students aren’t enrolled in a fully online course, they’re still downloading class materials and sending and receiving information digitally. 

“The relationship beyond just sitting in a room and listening to a professor is so pervasive now,” Gabel said. “Students can overcome challenges by accessing learning in a distributive way. It overcomes bottlenecks in courses, you can do things in smaller groups, students can be flexible, and you can reach students where they are. It’s a big part of our access mission.”

While all U of M campuses incorporate online learning and online degree programs, Gabel said the Crookston campus has been “very clearly leading the charge on that,” adding that she sees a very bright future for online learning here with a “more robust strategy.”

• On whether or not she’d like to see higher student enrollment numbers at UMN Crookston – Gabel said enrollment strategies combine science and a certain level of artistry that has to go beyond the notion of supply and demand and education being like a product on a shelf that a consumer chooses.

While it’s simplest to say the ideal enrollment is the number that “makes the budget work,” Gabel said a campus’ size and its enrollment combine to form the campus’ community, and that’s what best positions a campus in its community.

Student recruitment and retention is an ongoing challenge that is only becoming more daunting, she continued. “It’s a moving target that’s shifting nationally,” Gabel explained. “The national demand for higher education is declining. We started seeing those projections a decade ago and they’re proving to be accurate. Things can shift over time and that’s not necessarily bad, but it requires difficult choices. It doesn’t mean the core mission of this campus or the unique value of its students is any less. it just means it’s evolving.”

• The first thing she thinks of when she thinks of UMN Crookston – After pausing, Gabel listed several things, such as: The equine program and the agricultural excellence that “orbits” around the program. “High-touch” education and “strong community partnerships.” A unique location so close to a state border that makes reciprocity/no out-of-state tuition an especially valuable tool. A “very innovative” chancellor in Mary Holz-Clause when it comes to “distributive learning” and amplifying unique programs, such as equine industries management.

• On UMN Crookston’s strengths – UMN Crookston has a self-awareness when it comes to knowing what it does well and is positioned to amplify those strengths and “lean into your distinction,” Gabel said. Student/faculty collaborations and community partnerships are strong on the Crookston campus, she noted.

As for challenges, many UMN Crookston faces are not unique to the local campus and are being experienced nationally. “Crookston is simply experiencing the national trend around student demand,” Gabel said. “We talk about it at every conference…what is the ‘next’ for us on our campuses? What does it mean to meet students where they are, when there are fewer of them? It’s a national challenge and Crookston has its fair share of that, but it’s not a ‘Crookston’ problem.”

• On growing UMN Crookston’s equine programs – The program is a “gem” now, Gabel said, and now the focus should be on making sure the program’s story is being told in the best way possible to increase the chances of more students seeking it out. “You create the attraction, and then you have the experience to back it up,” she said.

• On her system-wide goals and how they relate to UMN Crookston’s strategic initiatives – System-wide strategic planning is underway, which will result in longer-term goals, Gabel said. The overarching objectives include student success, commitment to discovery, innovation and outreach, commitment to inclusion and commitment to fiscal stewardship. How those objectives mesh with “our wonderful, vibrant, robust state” and university students, faculty and staff is something Gabel is calling “MN/MINNtersections.” (The actual spelling is not known for the purposes of this story.)

Holz-Clause said it all blends nicely with UMN Crookston’s strategic goals, which include enrollment management/retention of students, diversity, equity and belonging, and Golden Eagle pride, outreach and engagement.

• On stressed-out, struggling students, whether they’re from a struggling farm family or dealing with other issues – Gabel and Holz-Clause each said that the larger strategic planning process has student mental health and well-being as an ongoing consideration and focus area.

“It’s an acute issue we want to jump on that transcends strategic planning; it’s a national conversation, but we don’t want to wait for a national answer,” Gabel said.

Holz-Clause said intervention efforts to identify students struggling with a variety of issues are ramping up at UMN Crookston, to the point that efforts to reach out to the student commence the very day a student comes forth or is otherwise identified as potentially being in some sort of crisis, or simply struggling for whatever reason. “We don’t want to wait for something to develop, we want to be very involved early,” Holz-Clause said. She added that one philanthropist who contributes to UMN Crookston requested that their funds be utilized as “emergency funds” for students who are in difficult situations.