Small-town Morris shares big issues with U

by Joe Carlson

MORRIS — In west central Minnesota, an island of academic pursuit floats amid a sea of agriculture.
The University of Minnesota –Morris exists in a rural, Midwestern town, a setting that is much different than its sister campus in the Twin Cities. Yet Morris must still confront weighty issues, such as racial tension and tenure code revisions, with which the University of Minnesota system’s flagship campus is also dealing.
The Morris campus, about 165 miles west of the Twin Cities in Stevens County, serves about 2,400 undergraduate students, faculty and staff. Couched in the 5,600-resident town of Morris, the campus is at once pastoral — with its many wide-open spaces and trees — and urban, possessing all of the amenities of a state institution. Morris has its own newspaper, The University Register, and its own radio station, KUMM at 89.7 FM.
“The campus itself is its own little world within the town,” said Jill Peterson, a senior in Spanish, Latin American studies and women’s studies.
The campus is organized around a central mall — resembling the Northrop Mall when it was the center of the East Bank — that had remained unspoiled until recently, when the Student Center was built on part of it.
Abundant greenery, which overwhelms the campus’s 25 or so buildings, reminds visitors that Morris is essentially a rural campus.
Unlike the Twin Cities campus, which is known for its technical research and education in the Institute of Technology and the Academic Health Center, Morris has a strong national reputation for its roster of straight liberal arts programs, such as philosophy and the humanities.
“One common conception is that we’re an agricultural campus,” Kohler said, “We’re not.”
One the reasons the liberal arts flourish at Morris is the ratio of students to professors, which is about 17 to one. “Faculty and students know each other by first name,” said Jason Kohler, president of the Morris Campus Student Association.
“I like the school a lot, and the fact that it’s small — I like that I can go to the bar with my professor,” said Ben Leonard, a senior in history.
English junior Andy Borer said that when he attended the Twin Cities campus, “I felt like the number that they give you … (in Morris) all the people in the financial aid building know my name.”
Another major difference between Morris and the Twin Cities is the priority placed on teaching over research.
“Teaching is the prime commitment of the campus,” said psychology professor Eric Klinger.
This ideal is one of the many guidelines outlined in Morris’ mission statement, which has helped keep administrators focused on the school’s goals since it was adopted early in the university’s existence. For example, despite the large number of applications Morris receives each year — about 1,400 in 1992 — the university keeps the total student population to about 1,900, in accordance with its mission statement.
Employing strict enrollment criteria helps the school maintain high academic standards. About three-fourths of the student body is from the top 25 percent of their high school class, and a third was in the top 5 percent.
Also, with the exception of one University College Masters program, Morris is “a totally undergraduate campus,” Klinger said. In fact, a proposal to begin discussing the addition of graduate programs was unanimously defeated in the early ’70s.
Controlled, focused growth and clear goals are important at Morris, as the university heads into the future with relatively limited funds.
“That kind of clarity of purpose has allowed this campus to be successful because they did not try to do a little of everything,” Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Gary McGrath said.
The university was established in 1960, but it was originally the site of the Sacred Heart Indian Mission. “In the late 1880s, a Catholic order of nuns wanted to open a school for American Indians,” McGrath said, which they did.
The school was closed in 1907, but three years later it became the site of the West Central School of Agriculture. “It was a specialized high school for boys and girls who wanted to be farmers,” McGrath said.
The layout of the campus today is based on the layout of the old high school, and many of the original buildings are still used.
In the town, which was established in 1871, the university is the largest employer. With more than 360 employees, it more than doubles the next highest employer, which are the Morris public schools.
But benefits to the town are not limited to economics. “The college means a lot, not just to the town, but to the whole area,” McGrath said.
“Morris is a cultural center for western Minnesota,” said Steve Fraley, a senior in political science and management. In the past, the university has attracted a diverse range of speakers and entertainers, from Sen. Paul Wellstone to Minnesota-based bands like the Honeydogs.
But not everyone sees the relationship between the town and the campus as so congenial.
“I think there is a good number of people in Morris who enjoy having the students around, but there is also a number of people who don’t like it so much,” said Cassie Eidem, a senior in sociology and women’s studies.
One explanation for the friction between Morris residents and students could be prejudice.
“Part of the racial tension in this school is due to the town’s demographics,” Leonard said, which is predominantly white and middle class.
But the university is dedicated to the education of a racially diverse student body: currently, 14 percent of Morris students are minorities. And administration is always working to increase that percentage. For example, a large number of African-American students attending Morris are from Chicago, beacuse of vigorous recruitment efforts in the area.
“Flat out, I think there’s a lot of racist people in Morris,” said Eidem, who grew up in Morris.
Some also see evidence of racism on the campus itself, manifested in racial self-segregation among social circles.
“It doesn’t seem like the different races mix all the time,” said English and Speech Communication Senior Matt Craig. But some students have been working to counter this segregation.
“It’s something we’re trying to address,” Kohler said, with groups such as the Women of Color Association, courses to teach minorities strategies for living in a small, western Minnesota town and special events like Diversity Jams.
Said Peterson: “I don’t think Morris is necessarily more racist (than other campuses), we just do a good job of dealing with it,” through discussion and special events.
But the special attention may be part of the problem.
“If you’re trying to figure out what makes a black person comfortable, you have already made a mistake,” Chamelon Pichon, a psychology junior, said. “The big problem is that people don’t understand that people are just people.”
But rather than creating a color-blind campus, Pichon suggested that students, faculty and residents simply recognize and respect one another’s differences.
“Everyone is different as a human being, and just as your personality comes across, your culture can come across,” Pichon said.
Some students said they have not experienced the racial tension that Morris administration and the media keep telling them exists.
“It’s sort of overblown,” Fraley said. “There is a very big perceived racial tension on this campus … but there have been a small number of incidents.”
One major incident, which received national media attention, took place on Halloween in 1993. As part of a prank, several members of the wrestling team, including two Hispanic students and an assistant coach, dressed up in Ku Klux Klan outfits and burnt a cross to frighten two African-American students. Eventually, four students and the coach moved away from Morris after pleading guilty to criminal charges.
Tenure reform is another issue Morris has faced. The Board of Regents passed the Sullivan II tenure code for Morris over the break in December. The new code includes provisions for faculty pay cuts in times of financial crisis and faculty peer review. The regents also enacted the new code for the Twin Cities’ Law School in November.
For the most part, Morris faculty agree with the revisions to the old code. “I don’t see much discontent,” Klinger said. “I am not disturbed by the outcome because Sullivan II is a reasonable revision of the tenure code.”
The actual effects of the new code have yet to be seen because it has only been in place for two weeks, but some are concerned about the way in which the code was passed. The regents decided to implement the code despite pleas from the Faculty Senate to postpone their decision.
“The outcome was not a problem, but the procedure was a big problem,” Klinger said. “There wasn’t the kind of reasoned exchange (between faculty and regents) that there should have been.”