Dickinson State faculty plead to preserve academic programs — and their jobs

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In August, the president of Dickinson State University delivered a gloomy message to faculty. 

Stephen Easton said the North Dakota college hadn’t tumbled into a financial crisis, but it was on track to one. He projected a $1 million budget hole if the college kept current spending levels, accounting for inflation.

Easton assigned professors a painful task — suggest cutbacks to degree programs, as well as faculty positions. And do it in a month, he told them.

When faculty completed Easton’s task, their document made a case for preserving academic offerings, not scaling them back. 

Faculty argued that if Easton slashed jobs, including some tenured positions, they would likely be hard-pressed to cover general education courses. And they pleaded with him to maintain teacher education programs, as the North Dakota governor recently signaled that attracting and retaining K-12 instructors are state priorities.

Easton hasn’t said how many faculty jobs he’s looking to drop, though that number will come soon. Administrators plan to tell faculty Wednesday whether they will be laid off.

Regardless of the outcome, the downsizing will likely further unravel the shaky relationship between faculty and Easton. Case in point, the arts and letters department’s portion of the faculty feedback argues “the recent retrenchment announcement by President Easton is primarily about enabling him to get rid of tenured faculty.”

Easton in an interview Thursday denied the austerity measures targeted faculty. He said he’s responding to student demand and ensuring the health of Dickinson State.

“We do not ignore student voices at Dickinson State,” he said. 

What do faculty have to say?

Faculty from across disciplines weighed in on academic cuts at the public college, which enrolled almost 1,400 students in spring 2023. 

The 75-page document they crafted details their objections to proposed consolidation, which would compress the university’s nine academic departments into four schools and would drop majors like English and theater. 

Eliminating majors and their instructors might affect others that aren’t at risk, faculty said.

The response stressed that professors typically teach a range of courses, including the general education classes students need to graduate. Professors in the mathematics and computer sciences department said they’re assigned at times to teach extra classes when enrollment in upper-level courses falls.

Moreover, all but one course in Dickinson State’s computer technology management major are used in programs not on the chopping block, such as business and agriculture, according to faculty. 

Similarly, the natural sciences department said it can’t cut faculty because classes under its purview, such as chemistry and physics, are required by other majors like biology.

This crossover is particularly evident in teacher education programs. For instance, all of the courses needed for a mathematics bachelor’s degree are also required for a mathematics education degree, faculty said. 

English and mathematics education degrees are on the chopping block, causing alarm in several departments.

They noted that K-12 teachers are in such short supply that Gov. Doug Burgum used his executive authority this month to create a task force to study and make recommendations on the matter. Burgum’s executive order states that about a third of North Dakota teachers leave the profession within their first five years.

Easton acknowledged the importance of teacher training, particularly given the governor’s order, and that Dickinson State was founded as a normal school, institutions that help teachers learn their pedagogy.

“I don’t think anyone would dispute it is one of our missions to try to produce K-12 teachers,” Easton said. 

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