The chancellor of North Dakota’s university system told the crowd that his story, in a way, started in Williston.
Mark Hagerott said his grandfather came to Williston during the oil boom in the 1950s. He made enough money that he was able to put his daughter — Hagerott’s mother — through school.
Hagerott, chancellor of the North Dakota University System, came to Williston State College for a “listening session” to discuss the future of the school. There were three sessions — two in the morning for students and for faculty, and an afternoon session open to the public.
Hagerott described what the university system is working with. Officials in North Dakota are working through a study, created through Senate Bill 2003, which calls for making the system more efficient.
Hagerott noted education is getting more expensive at a time when the cost of other commodities is going down. There are several reasons for this.
“It’s hard to automate teaching, for one. You need contact. But also, young people are incompressible. They need dorm rooms; they can’t get smaller. They need food that can’t get smaller,” he said.
The university system has to look at several issues, among them class sizes, working with K-12 education, and electronic delivery of applications and other forms. Also, people running the system need to know that what works in Williston might not work in Wahpeton, so issues have to be localized, Hagerott said.
Much of the session focused on answering written questions from the audience. One attendee wanted to know when WSC will become a four-year school.
WSC president John Miller helped answer that question. There are currently two programs — nursing and teaching — where students can do part of the course load online, working with Minot and Dickinson.
Those programs are slowly moving to a four-year system. Currently, a student can get a four-year accreditation from Williston, in partnership with the other schools, Hagerott said.
For other programs, WSC will have to work with the University of North Dakota. Hagerott cited petroleum engineering. Currently, students must move from Williston to UND to get a four-year degree.
Agriculture is another example.
“Agriculture is huge in Northwest North Dakota, but as it is, you have to go eventually to Fargo for a four-year ag program. Is that OK in 2030, or should we have an online version of that, so people can stay and help on the farm?” Hagerott said.
In answer to a related question, Hagerott said Williston might eventually be able to do what Bismarck State College is currently doing. Bismarck, like WSC, is a two-year school, but it does offer a four-year Bachelor of Applied Science degree in some programs, Hagerott said.
Another question was what Williston can do to help the school. Hagerott said the area is already doing that through its generosity toward WSC.
He also pointed to Mayor Howard Klug, sitting in the front row. He thanked Klug for his support of WSC.
Miller added to that. He recalled a conversation he had with an older gentleman about a decade earlier.
“He said, ‘You know, when times were tough, the college saved the town. And the town saved the college.’ And truly, I’ve never forgotten that,” he said.
That speaks to the relationship between the two, Miller said.
At the afternoon session, Hagerott also shared some of what he’d heard during the morning sessions.
He had discussed distance learning with the students.
“We asked the students, and we had about two and a half rows of students, and they all preferred in person. So that’s a real compliment to the faculty; they liked the human faculty,” he said.
Even so, distance education is an important part of the process. In a state as geographically large as North Dakota, some courses might not be available statewide. Then there are people who need to take courses online because of their work schedule.
He also shared that the students in the morning session were worried about the dropout rate. He vowed he looked into the problem, but he suspects it has something to do with the isolation caused by the increase in technology.
He also vowed to look for early markers that might indicate a student might drop out, such as not showing up for classes.
Another thing he shared was a question that came up in previous listening sessions throughout the state. Hagerott said liberal arts will remain an important part of the education system — adding that there were several opponents out there.
“Some people are saying, ‘Who needs liberal arts?’” he said. “We can tell you … mid-level oil executives said the reading and writing skills are dropping perceptibly, and you gotta arrest that drop.”
Hagerott added that one executive told him how hard it was to find people with good writing skills.
“So it’s interesting, when you think that people would be asking for more mathematics, more STEM, they said you better get this reading/writing thing back,” Hagerott said.
The liberal arts are important for another reason. People want a reason to live in Williston for something other than machines. He cited the art program at Williston State College, which he noted is full.
“There are young people who want to work for oil businesses, but they also want to be artistic, and I was very impressed to see that group,” Hagerott said.
David Tuan, city administrator, was one of the people who attended the afternoon session. He said the information was useful.
“It’s really important that as we look to grow the Williston community, that we’re aligned in our priorities. Nice to hear that they have success in some of their programs, but they’re looking at ways to improve, do better. Meet the needs of the industry that we have here, and the goal of improving the quality of life,” he said.
Tuan said this matches up with the city’s goals.
“I think we have a lot of shared interests. Just understanding their realm a little better helps us promote, and I think improve the community together more efficiently,” he said.
Miller said Hagerott’s visit gave WSC a chance to showcase what it’s about.
“It’s not very often that we get the chance to get the chancellor in town,” he said. “We have a great story to tell, and it’s important that the leaders in the higher education system and our legislators hear it and share it all the time. ... After spending the whole day here, both the chancellor and the vice chancellor are going to be far more powerful advocates for Williston State.”