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Saturday, March 24, 2018

DCC decisions are made with a purpose, not just for the sake of making change

Dawson Community College recently achieved a hard-fought agreement with its two unions to reduce teaching faculty and staff to align our workforce with future needs and make our college more competitive. Now we turn to a search for a new president. These are just the latest significant changes at the college.

“Change” is easily championed as a simple solution, but change is not simple and without purpose it is just chaos. When we consider the past few years at Dawson Community College, the trustees don’t discuss the significant change we’ve enacted, rather we talk about purpose.

Seventy-five years ago Dawson Community College was a radical idea. Going to college was rare and the idea of a college in a small town was unique. It was only the fierce independence of people in Glendive that made such a crazy thing possible. In the aftermath of a depression and on the brink of world war, visionaries decided the strength of this community was theirs to determine. Seventy-five years ago residents decided higher education had purpose even if they had to do it themselves; an accomplishment only matched by two other Montana towns. 

The next day the college’s fight for survival began. It has never ended.

De facto college historian Don Kettner recounts eight-decades of a scrappy, underdog school fighting above its weight class and trying to survive in spite of itself.  In spite of small towns like Glendive not having colleges. In spite of odd-ball community colleges not fitting into the state university system. In spite of trouble attracting people to the badlands. 

Fifty years ago fire destroyed the college. With purpose, the administration made sure students only missed 30 minutes of class.

At every turn obstacles and budget crises and naysayers and outright disasters have been met with the hard work and ingenuity of the people of Dawson County; people tested by an unforgiving climate, strengthened by working a fickle land and tempered in a brutal boom and bust economy. 

Today, DCC rises again as we enter our fourth year of dramatic change. The recent challenges faced by this institution are not unlike the challenges of old, but they are happening in a world where time, information and distance are more compressed: every weakness is magnified on social media and the distance across the state shortened by an 80 mph speed limit.

Current change began in 2012. After a 30 percent decline in enrollment, the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education warned DCC it might not remain viable. The Board of Regents rejected DCC’s “unrealistic budget”. 

Not long after, the trustees requested the president’s resignation. Everything since has been a purposeful effort to remake the school. Every administrative position has turned over. Four people have served as president. The seven-member board has had 14 people serve as trustees. There have been three chairmen. 

This revolution in governance and administration was recently matched by changes in staff and teaching faculty. This change caught the public’s attention, as familiar, long-serving employees are gone. These changes sting and were not made lightly, but they had purpose.

They created the important flexibility needed to better respond to the ever-changing economic conditions and training needs of our region. We need instruction that expands, contracts and adjusts more rapidly. As the ratio of adjunct instructors expands to align with national trends, we emphasize that such instructors are not a back-up plan and they are not a bargain-priced compromise; they are career relevant, well-educated people who work what they teach and allow us to maximize our course and program offerings.

Most importantly, Dawson Community College in its 76th year has its original purpose: to overcome the tyranny of geography. We still live in a remote and difficult place, but local residents shouldn’t have limited opportunities as a result. Likewise, residents shouldn’t be held back from their ambitions. Whether one is obligated to their family, the farm or a small business, they deserve the chance to better themselves where they live. Likewise, if one seeks outside opportunities, they shouldn’t be trapped for lack of options. Both have purpose for the community.

We are proud to say college audits are now clean and accounts are reconciled, we don’t face loan default, programs and courses respond more flexibly to local market demands, eligibility for student aid and federal funding are protected, grant money is applied for only with a plan, the college is working with the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities to achieve course and program accountability and student outcome assessment plans measure instructional effectiveness. The Board of Regents recently approved a new degree program in corrosion technology — the first new academic degree program at DCC in many years. In short, the institutional foundations of DCC are regaining their purpose.

After the fire, Kettner wrote in the Feb. 13, 1966 edition of the Ranger-Review, “Dawson Junior College is a stubborn, determined college which has great future promise for the youth of Eastern Montana.” 

The independence and persistence of DCC has always been daring but purposeful. In that spirit and with that determination DCC did not cancel a single class this semester for lack of an instructor following faculty reductions. 

Seventy-five years after a trailblazing launch and 50 years after blazing destruction, the trustees still believe in President Kettner’s words.  The dramatic changes over the last few years were undertaken with stubbornness and purpose. The next president will be chosen to preserve this legacy and advance this mission for the next 75 years.

Chad Knudson is chairman of the DCC Board of Trustees. This column was submitted by Knudson on behalf of the entire DCC board.

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