Campus closing still plagued with political strife

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 from Rochester. This is the first of two stories examining the closing and its impact on the town of Waseca.

More than 30 years ago, University officials opened the Waseca Technical College with high hopes for teaching future farmers better ways to grow crops and raise livestock.
But a farm crisis, a statewide funding crunch and political wrangling left the campus on the chopping block.
In 1971 the University opened its Waseca Technical College on the land adjoining the Southern Experiment Station to meet the region’s growing demand for agricultural education.
Located 75 miles south of the Twin Cities, the school began offering classes to the first 175 students in its first year with the motto “This place is for students,” coined by then-Chancellor Edward Frederick.
The campus offered two-year degrees in agricultural production, agribusiness, horticulture, food technology, home economics and animal technology for 21 years.
Two years after the campus opened, a state Senate committee voted to close the campus at the urging of state Sen. Jack Davies, DFL-Minneapolis.
Then-University President Malcolm Moos and other officials successfully fought the attempt to close the campus. Instead, University officials would later propose closing the campus in 1991.

The October omen
The first hint of the campus’ ultimate demise came in late October 1990 when former University President Nils Hasselmo rejected the final candidates for chancellor because administrators needed to re-evaluate the campus’ mission.
After the announcement, Interim Chancellor Thomas Lindahl appointed a three-member college restructuring task force to propose ways for the campus to become more efficient.
Students, staff and faculty members suggested recruiting more students and proposing measures to make sure the campus fit with the University’s mission to save it.
Hasselmo gave the task force two months to come up with strategies to make the campus more viable during difficult economic times.
But in the town known for its agricultural prosperity, time was running out for one of its most precious resources.

Hasselmo’s decision
Amid controversy and accusations of political wrangling Hasselmo announced his plan to close the campus on Jan. 9, 1991, as part of his plan to reallocate $60 million over a five-year period during a statewide funding crunch in the early 1990s.
The president planned to shift the campus’ $6.5 million in funding to other areas including the College of Liberal Arts, Institute of Technology and the Duluth and Morris campuses.
When Hasselmo announced his plan, Waseca was nationally recognized for its programs and offered the state’s only accredited veterinary technician program, which earned the praise of David Thawley, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine.
When Hasselmo arrived at the campus to make his announcement, he was greeted by more than 1,500 protesters who already feared the worst.
Hasselmo called his decision painful, but said it was necessary in light of the state’s budget constraints, citing the cost per student and declining enrollment as reasons for eliminating the campus.
“My heart tells me not to do this,” Hasselmo said. “But Waseca, as it now stands, is not a way to deliver the kinds of educational programs that we have to deliver.”
The task force report noted enrollment reached a high of 1,148 in 1985, but with the agricultural crisis of the 1980s the number of agriculture students nationwide dropped; enrollment in the College of Agriculture at the St. Paul campus dropped more than 50 percent during the crisis.
Despite national recognition and praise from within the University, Hasselmo said the campus’ two-year degrees no longer fit with the University mission.
“I want you to know that I’m not enjoying this at all,” Hasselmo told students. “This is a terribly tough decision, which I am going to get eternal flak for.”
Waseca County News reporter Deanna Bendix said Hasselmo did not seem to care about the impact on the community.
“I thought, ‘You bastard. You might not have lost any sleep over the decision, but you can be sure plenty of people down here did,'” she said.
On March 8, 1991, the Board of Regents voted to close the campus. Then-Board of Regents’ Chairman Charles Casey called the decision painful, but necessary because the agricultural programs offered at the campus were no longer in demand.
Regent Mary Schertler said the Waseca campus “is as important as the whole University,” challenging Hasselmo’s statement that the campus no longer fit with the University’s mission.
The board, including Regent Stanley Sahlstrom, former chancellor of the Crookston campus where enrollment and cost of education were only slightly better than at Waseca, voted 10-2 in favor of closing the campus.
Sen. Dick Day, IR-Owatonna, accused Casey, a rural veterinarian from the Waseca area, of abandoning agriculture and called the regents’ vote “a slap in the face of agriculture.”
“A political deal”
Campus and community leaders lobbied University officials and legislators alike to keep the campus open.
If the campus closed, Waseca banker Mike Halvorson estimated that the town stood to lose $25 million to $30 million each year. Halvorson led a community task force to save the campus.
But perhaps more importantly, the town stood to lose an important piece of its identity as a college town, Bendix said, adding that Waseca often received visitors like Hubert H. Humphrey because of the campus’ importance.
To many, the decision to close the campus reeked of political maneuvering.
“It was a political deal,” said Faith Kammerdiener, who graduated from the school’s equine management program. Kammerdiener, who later earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of WisconsinRiver Falls, said students were disappointed that the University chose to eliminate important educational programs that no other college in the state offered.
Some believe Hasselmo made his decision before the task force even finished its work.
“We approached this difficult task in good faith in spite of a short six-week deadline,” said Waseca librarian Kathryn Rynders, who was part of the three-member task force. “But we soon discovered ourselves plunged into the middle of the University’s highly charged and well-planned political strategy to eliminate UMW.”
Waseca lacked powerful officials like Sahlstrom to fight for the campus. Day and other legislators argued that the Crookston campus, which faced similar problems with enrollment and high costs, was not in jeopardy because it fell in the Senate district belonging to Majority Leader Roger Moe, DFL-Erskine.
Industry lobbying efforts
Across Minnesota and the rest of the country, national agriculture experts said closing the Waseca campus would be a mistake for a school whose graduates had nearly 100 percent job placement.
“Waseca is far superior to technical schools,” said Dale Quiring, agricultural services manager at the Glencoe Butter and Produce association, which employed Waseca graduates.
Horse industry experts lobbied University administrators and legislators alike to keep the Waseca campus open because it was one of three programs in the tri-state area and its program better suits the growing horse racing industry’s needs.
Hasselmo called the decision to close the campus obvious in light of the University’s priorities, but others felt the decision violated the University’s land-grant heritage and pitted rural interests against those holding political control.
Willis Eken, then-president of the Minnesota Farmer’s Union, said Hasselmo’s decision to “dismantle and close” the Waseca campus “is a hit on agriculture.”
Legislative battle
During the ensuing months of the regents vote, several legislators, including Day and Rep. Richard Anderson, IR-Waseca, introduced bills to save the campus by transferring it into the state’s system of technical colleges.
Some legislators acknowledged the University’s constitutional autonomy would allow the institution to close the campus, countering that the Legislature could cut the $6.5 million from the budget which Hasselmo and other administrators hoped to reallocate.
“The issue is that the University does have an obligation to perform for southern Minnesota, and we are saying if the University chooses not to operate the campus, then it is the legitimate choice of the Legislature to reallocate the state funding to someone who will,” said Peter Rodosovich, DFL-Faribault.
Legislators’ efforts to transfer the campus to the state colleges continued through the end of the 1992 session, but in the end, the attempts to save the campus were futile.
With 8,000 residents divided over how to replace the town’s fourth largest employer, some community leaders began to lobby for the federal prison system to convert the campus to a minimum security federal detention center in an effort to bolster the city’s economy.
The campus closed in July 1992.