I have been following with great interest Dickinson Press reporter Manuel Holguin Jr.’s reporting on President Stephen Easton’s plan for Academic Retrenchment at Dickinson State University. After reading of Dr. Easton’s scheme and the thoughtful response from the DSU Faculty Senate, it is clear to me that Dr. Easton is determined to manage DSU’s decline while the dedicated faculty of DSU is committed to growing North Dakota’s westernmost university.
North Dakota is experiencing an unprecedented shortage of teachers. The draconian and unnecessary cuts in academic programming would not only disrupt the education of those already enrolled in secondary education programs, but it would also disincentivize students who choose that noble career path to enroll at DSU. Dr. Easton is seriously considering doing away with undergraduate offerings essential to education majors including Music, Math, Communications, Political Science, Environmental Science, Chemistry, Theatre and English.
While Dr. Easton claims that these cuts must be made now, his reasoning is suspect. He told the publication, Inside Higher Ed, that his recommendations would not come about because of financial hardship. He said, “This is not a financial exigency. This is an effort to take a significant step to reduce the possibility that Dickinson State might face extreme circumstances if it does not take this step now or sometime soon” (emphasis added).
The sad fact is that none of this is about anything more than a university president wanting to rid himself of dissenting voices on his campus. In the 2023 legislative session, Dr. Easton wrote the initial version of HB 1446. This proposed legislation, known as the Tenure with Responsibilities Bill, would have allowed President Easton to axe tenured faculty for any reason or none, with no opportunity for the tenured individual to meaningfully appeal what could be an arbitrary and capricious decision. In testimony before two committees, there were four testimonies favoring the bill, including Dr. Easton, two neutral testimonies, and seventy testimonies in opposition. It failed to become law.
Dr. Easton’s impetus for choosing to go down this road of eliminating programs and departments is less about financial stewardship and more about his aversion to shared governance with the faculty at DSU. His single-minded focus on consolidating power may satisfy his autocratic bent, but it is extremely detrimental to DSU, the Dickinson community, and the prospects for growth.
Mayville State, Minot State, and Valley City State have each seen enrollment gains this year while DSU’s enrollment has dipped slightly. They are facing the same inflationary and demographic issues as DSU yet have found a way to grow.
At DSU, faculty turnover is high. At least thirteen faculty have resigned their positions at DSU, three since Dr. Easton’s announcement. Adjunct faculty, many of whom will never be on campus, are picking up the slack for now by teaching courses online.
Dickinson’s civic leaders and DSU alumni should be encouraging Dr. Easton to work with, not against, DSU faculty to build a robust and welcoming campus community committed to excellence in academics.