In the 55 years since John Neumaier became president of the newly renamed Moorhead State College in 1958, there have been 11 presidents of the United States. Turnover in leadership has not been nearly as frequent at MSC, which became Moorhead State University in 1975 and Minnesota State University Moorhead in 2000.
“This institution has only had 10 presidents and four of them are behind me,” said public radio host Doug Hamilton, a former MSUM spokesman, before introducing Neumaier (1958- 1968) and his successors, Roland Dille (1968-1994), Roland Barden (1994-2008) and Edna Szymanski (2008-present) Friday afternoon at the Hansen Theatre.
During a special Homecoming event to honor the university’s 125th anniversary, the four presidents broached a wide range of topics. They talked candidly for more than 90 minutes and often had the crowd in stiches.
Neumaier, 92, told the audience “Not to be confused. I am not the one who is 125.”
Noting the first name of her two immediate predecessors, Szymanski – the first female president – recalled asking the search committee if “they are sure they are ready for somebody who isn’t named Roland.”
Dille said 11 people who worked for him, including Barden, became university presidents. “It was kind of a kindergarten,” he quipped.
But the event didn’t just involve droll one-liners; the presidents recalled the successes and difficulties of their tenures, while pointing out how much times have changed in the past 55 years.
Barden noted the emergence of digital technology in the classroom – a development that permeated every aspect of campus, from rebuilding facilities to revamping curriculum.
“The classroom experience changed markedly and continues to change,” he said. Also during his presidency, state support for colleges decreased while tuition costs increased markedly.
“It is a real dilemma,” Barden said. “The consequences are tough on our young generations.”
Dille, the longest serving president, decried the creation of the MnSCU system near the end of his presidency for diminishing local control over curriculum and other decisions.
But Szymanski respectfully disagreed, calling the system the best in the country and “a wonderful thing for the sake of the student.”
She credited her predecessors with leaving her with “the best faculty anywhere in the world,” and got choked up talking about how much the professors support their students – in the classroom and through scholarship donations.
Some themes the presidents discussed, like fighting for MSUM’s fair share of state funding and dealing with periodic funding crises, have recurred from Neumaier to the present.
Early in his presidency, Barden dealt with severely declining enrollment, and the school ended up eliminating about 70 positions.
“It was very painful for everybody on campus,” he said.
Szymanski, who retires at the end of the year, has dealt with a budget deficit in each of her six years in charge, but so far has been able to avoid layoffs.
The discussion ended with the presidents sharing the happiest moments of their tenures.
Neumaier talked about attracting students and faculty of color to the university in the 1950s and 1960s, which helped establish a tradition of diversity that carries on to this day.
Audience member Brandon Mykel Van Den Eykel, a music education senior and 2012 Homecoming king, said that tradition makes him proud to be a Dragon.
“(Diversity) is something we’ve been worrying about for a long time, not just recently,” he said.
Art education senior Amanda Olson said she enjoyed hearing the four presidents’ firsthand historical accounts.
“They were very witty and entertaining to watch,” Olson said. “I didn’t know what to expect. It was fun to watch them interact.”
BY BRYCE HAUGEN