Touring campuses after becoming chairman of the committee that approves borrowing for state construction projects, Sen. Keith Langseth noticed laboratory facilities throughout the state were in disrepair.
“I wouldn’t think (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) would allow places like these to exist,” said the Glyndon DFLer, who represented the Moorhead-area district in the state legislature for 32 years. “They stunk. They were way too crowded – terrible ventilation.”
So along with flood control, Langseth made replacing the aged labs his top priority. On Dec. 19, one of those projects, MSUM’s $21 million Science Laboratory building, will be renamed Langseth Hall. That same day at fall commencement, with the MnSCU chancellor present, the 75-year-old retired legislator will receive an honorary doctor of law degree.
“My grandma said ‘you should be a lawyer because you argue even after knowing you’re wrong,’” Langseth said with a grin. “I’ll fulfill my grandmother’s wish.”
The Science Laboratory building, which opened in 2004, is only one of the $1.3 billion worth of college and university projects Langseth helped shepherd through the legislature during his tenure. Since he became bonding committee chairman in 2001, MSUM has also remodeled Lommen, MacLean, Hagen, Livingston Lord and completed numerous smaller projects. Earlier in his career, he worked to secure funding for the Center for Business.
“Something in the system needed to be named after Keith Langseth,” MSUM president Edna Szymanski said. “For a guy with no degree to understand and believe so much in the importance of higher education to the state’s economy, I find it amazing.
“I just adore that man.”
Langseth was “one of the most impactful legislators in the state of the past 50 years,” said Minnesota Office of Higher Education commissioner Larry Pogemiller, who added that, as Senate majority leader in the late 2000s, he “totally deferred to (Langseth’s) judgment on the bonding bill. He treated people fairly with the best long-term interests of education in mind.”
Former MSUM vice president for administrative affairs David Crockett echoed those sentiments.
“He’s the best friend higher education has had in Minnesota for years,” said Crockett, who oversaw university construction projects and worked closely with Langseth.
At his farmstead south of Glyndon last week, Langseth took a break from pitching cow manure (once a dairy farmer, he now tends to 50 Angus cattle “for something to do, more than anything”) to reflect upon his long career in public service.
Without legislative obligations, he and his wife Lorraine spent three months in Arizona last winter and the two are now able to visit their Turtle Lake cabin more often – “you can live forever doing that,” Langseth said.
The retired senator said he tried to devote about 30 percent of each bonding bill, which typically are passed every other year and authorize between a half-billion to a billion dollars in projects, to college and university construction projects. Quarreling frequently with then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the Minnesota House, Langseth aimed to spread the funding love around, he said.
“I’m fair to the whole state, but I’m just a little bit fairer to my part of the state.”
MnSCU vice chancellor for advancement Mike Dougherty rattled off a long list of projects Langseth supported in all corners of Minnesota.
“(Langseth) balanced the wide variety of pressing needs for capital investment,” Dougherty said. “His support has had a tremendous impact on the quality of our education statewide.”
For Langseth, it wasn’t about the buildings, Dougherty said. “It was about the people whose lives would be changed as a result of what was happening in those buildings.”
Langseth said he strived to avoid partisanship while writing the bonding bill, choosing projects based on what MnSCU and the University of Minnesota said they needed, rather than political concerns.
“I really honored (higher education professional’s) requests,” he said. “I figure they knew a heck of a lot more about their priorities than I did.”
MnSCU tended to take care of the politics well enough with their requests: “Every campus got something,” Langseth said.
Langseth made “higher education as nonpartisan as it could be” and was widely respected on both sides of the aisle, said Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, a bonding committee colleague and another former majority leader.
“We’re good friends,” Senjem said. “It transcends any partisan differences we may have had.”
The healthy relationship with Senjem produced tangible results when the DFL lost the majority in the senate in 2010 and Langseth lost his chairmanship. Despite being in the minority, the Red River Valley received a big chunk of $80 million in bonding money for flood protection.
Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, who has known Langseth since childhood and replaced him in the senate this session, said the elder statesman “left huge shoes to fill.”
“You look up and down the valley, Keith’s fingerprints are everywhere,” Eken said. “I hope to continue his model of leadership and public service.
“It’s quite fitting that at least one building be named after (him). There could be many.”
On Feb. 19, the MSUM Faculty Association endorsed naming a building after the senator.
“We did not endorse naming that building as Langseth Hall, but we did not object either,” wrote Faculty Association president Ted Gracyk, chairman of the philosophy department, in an email.
Science faculty generally agreed that Langseth should be honored on campus, but many “thought it would make a lot of sense” to name the Science Laboratory Building after the late Judy Strong, an MSUM administrator and one-time science dean who left her estate to the university or, per common practice, after former president Roland Barden, a former science professor, said astronomy professor Matthew Craig, a participant in the discussions.
A proposal to name the largest lecture hall in the renamed building Barden Auditorium is in the consultation stages, Szymanski said.
She said the university has moved out of its growth phase, so there will likely be few buildings to name over the next few decades, whether it be after Barden, herself or future presidents. The only one left to name, Szymanski said, is the Center for Business – and that’s reserved for a major donor.
Langseth said he’s humbled to receive an honorary degree and have a building named for him, but the man who’s rubbed shoulders with governors and senators for almost four decades insists he’s just a regular guy.
“A lot of people asked what it’s like to be a senator,” Langseth said. “I don’t think I’m that much different than I was before I went to the legislature. I’m still pitching manure.”
BY BRYCE HAUGEN