Waseca’s sentence:

by Amy Olson

Editor’s note: In light of the Board of Regents’ approval of establishing a branch campus in Rochester, the Daily takes a look at the 1992 closing of its Waseca campus, located just 45 minutes away from Rochester. This is the second of two stories examining the closing and its impact on the town of Waseca.

WASECA, Minn. — As students began their last year at the University of Minnesota–Waseca, campus officials said everyone was trying to make sure they made the most of the last year.
Enrollment in the college dwindled so much that it could not field a football team, but students celebrated homecoming anyway. In June, about 250 students went through the campus’ last commencement exercises. The campus bookstore could barely keep up with demand for sweat shirts printed “UMW: 1971-1992.”
Legislative efforts to save the campus had failed, as did a proposal made by then-U.S. Rep. Tim Penny, D-Minn., which called for maintaining the campus as an education center that could have been used by area colleges, vocational schools and high schools.
The clock was ticking as University officials scrambled to find a way to unburden the institution of the campus, while Waseca’s city officials attempted to replace the town’s fourth largest employer.
UMW: 1971-1992
As the closing of the campus drew near, students doubled up on classes to finish their degrees while professors and staff members looked for other jobs.
Many of the students who said they would not have attended college if they had not gone to Waseca completed their degrees before the campus closed; others transferred to different institutions.
For the school’s tenured faculty members, employment at one of the University’s four other campuses was a guarantee.
Of the college’s 33 tenured professors, six took positions at the Duluth campus, six took positions in St. Paul and four took positions in Minneapolis. Thirteen professors took the University’s severance package; the rest transferred to other schools.
But for other instructors and staff members, finding a job within the University was not easy, with a nearly University-wide hiring freeze.
“I guess deep down, you’re still a little bitter about it,” said Skip Ristau, who worked as a maintenance carpenter on the campus for 20 years.
In May 1991 the regents voted to deny tenure to four University professors from the campus even though they had met the qualifications. University officials cited the closing of the campus as the reason for not granting tenure.
Nontenured faculty and staff members were given severance packages of two weeks’ pay for each year they worked for the college.
In August, the last summer session of classes ended, and the campus closed its doors on Sept. 30, 1992.
But then-University President Nils Hasselmo’s reallocation plans could not begin immediately. The University continued to pay about $1.8 million for salaries of professors who transferred to the University’s other campuses, with severance packages cutting into the remaining $3.5 million.
Campus for sale
With the closing of the campus, Waseca lost its fourth largest employer and the social prestige of being a college town. The college employed 160 people, with an annual payroll totaling $4.3 million.
Few of the professors who taught at the college remained in Waseca after the campus closed.
Although the University Board of Regents approved a measure to transfer the campus to the city of Waseca or the state in March 1992, legal questions remained whether the University could sell the property. Eventually, University officials handed over the former campus to the city in January 1995 for $1.
After the city of Waseca took control of the campus, it was turned over to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. It took the bureau several months to renovate the campus into a prison, which opened in 1996.
Opportunities in agricultural education
The closing of the Waseca campus highlighted a growing concern for farmers and policy makers alike: Opportunities for agricultural education were diminishing in a state where 25 percent of the economy is derived off the land.
Legislators expressed concern about closing the Waseca campus because it had opened opportunities to farmers who were forced off the land during the farm crisis in the 1980s.
“Waseca serves a real purpose in southern Minnesota in terms of research and special two-year programs,” said state Rep. Peter Rodosovich, DFL-Faribault.
National experts agreed.
“Waseca is one of the best schools in the country,” said Ken Olcott, national executive director for an organization of post-secondary agriculture students.
But Hasselmo argued that the need for agricultural education was diminishing.
Former Waseca Chancellor Edward Frederick said training students at a rural facility was crucial.
“We train students in rural America for rural America,” Frederick said. “Many people don’t realize how important that is.”
From college town to prison town
Once the college was gone, community leaders struggled to find a way to reuse the former campus. After other proposals to merge the school into the technical college system failed and no private institution was willing to take over the campus, the City of Waseca decided to accept a proposal from the Federal Bureau of Prisons to turn it into a low-security prison.
“It was very sad,” said Deanna Bendix, a Waseca resident and reporter for the County News. But once the college was gone, officials had to find a way to make the facility economically viable.
Opened in 1996, the low security prison houses about 1,000 inmates convicted of “blue collar” crimes, such as tax evasion and drug-related offenses, said Sue Bradshaw, spokeswoman for the prison.
The federal prison employs about 220 people, with salaries alone totaling nearly $13 million in 1998.
Larry Dukes, president of the Waseca Area Chamber of Commerce, estimates about one-third of those employees are long-time residents.
“Initially, it was devastating,” Dukes said. The loss of the campus raised economic and social concerns in the community.
Many residents opposed the prison option. Bendix said people might have had different feelings about the prison if it had been farther away from the city.
The University’s decision to close the campus was hard on the community, and many people had bitter feelings about the prison, said Laurie Goodnough, office manager for the chamber.
In the three years the prison has been open, Dukes said prison officials have been good neighbors to the city, adding that the community has accepted its presence.
While the prison has been a boon to the community, Dukes said, it cannot replace the value of being home to a college campus.