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New MSUM president's job: Improve perception of school

by Mike McFeely

(This column appeared in the May 1, 2014, edition of The Extra.)

My lovely wife Michelle chewed my rear end one recent day for a comment I made on the radio. A caller to KFGO asked if we were encouraging our daughter Emma to attend college. Of course, I replied. Well, the caller said, perhaps she could follow in my footsteps and choose Minnesota State University Moorhead.

This is when the trouble started.

"I think she can do better than that," I chuckled.

Hell hath no fury like a wife who is offended by an off-hand, and honest, remark about my alma mater.

"That was really mean," Michelle said approximately 3.4 seconds after I walked in the front door. "That's where you went to school, and seemed to get a good education. We have many friends whose kids are going there, and they seem to be doing well. There are people at MSUM who support you even though you've written and said so many bad things about the school over the years. You should be proud if Emma chose to stay close to home and go to MSUM."

My explanation, that the comment was not so much a shot at MSUM as it was the confidence our daughter could qualify for Stanford or Michigan or Northwestern or Cal, went nowhere.

"That's not how it sounded," Michelle said. "You sounded like an arrogant jerk."

So, it must have been a day of the week that ended in "Y."

Let me take this opportunity to use this little anecdote to congratulate Anne Blackhurst on being named the new president of MSUM, and to offer her a piece of advice:

Fix what ails me.

Whoa, wait a second. That's a broad request that would require years, if not decades, of psychoanalysis and counseling. Let me rephrase:

Fix what ails me, and thousands of others, when it comes to the perception of MSUM.

There are challenges facing Blackhurst perhaps more important than the public's perception of the university. Chief among them would be getting past the budget mess, re-establishing trust with faculty and staff and stemming the drop in enrollment with an eye toward growing it again. But the fact is the perception of MSUM in Fargo-Moorhead has long been this: It's a second-choice school, lurching from crisis to crisis, with a suitcase student body that clears campus on weekends. Oh, and it's sports teams suck.

Before you send the angry e-mails, let me emphasize that is perception. Accurate or not, that is how many in Fargo-Moorhead view MSUM. Trust me.

This is not an overnight fix, considering it's been the perception for decades. But Blackhurst should start by assigning a task force of MSUM alumni with the purpose of generating and implementing ideas to get the community and surrounding area more involved in the campus and vice versa.

Are there things the university could be doing to get more Fargo-Moorhead residents on campus on a regular basis? Are elementary and middle school students from Fargo-Moorhead invited to campus for presentations and field trips? Is there outreach to the small towns within a 100-mile radius that have traditionally sent students to MSUM, or has the emphasis been geared too much toward the Twin Cities area? Is there a way to get some coffee shops, pizza joints, sandwich shops or -- gasp! -- taverns built on or near campus? Can parking be made easier for the general public?

The answer to some of those questions might be yes, or might be no. The idea is to do anything to get more people to visit campus and take ownership in MSUM.

There are more than 10,000 MSUM alumni in Fargo-Moorhead -- 10,000! -- yet the level of Dragon Pride (is that even a term?) is negligible.

The obvious way to tap into this group is athletics. No, MSUM is never going to be North Dakota State. That monstrous athletic program has sucked much of the oxygen out of the collective room with its move to (and success in) Division I. But not everybody is a Bison fan and MSUM could fill a niche with its Division II football and basketball programs by being a small-scale, family-oriented, more-affordable destination.

The truth is, Dragon athletics have improved greatly under athletic director Doug Peters' watch and he's tried to become exactly what I just described. The atmosphere at men's basketball games has improved greatly (and so have the crowds), but colleges in this community are judged by their football programs and the Dragons have struggled there. Coach Steve Laqua's team is expected to be much-improved this fall and that should help. The best marketing campaign is winning. Again, look at NDSU.

For too long, MSUM has been the campus tucked away in Moorhead that even its alums (like me, guilty as charged) view as a place to pass through, and then ignore. This needs to change. The new president should make it a priority. Then maybe MSUM will pop into my head as a first option for our daughter, and I can avoid the wrath of my wife.

(Mike McFeely is a talk-show host on 790 KFGO. His show is 2-5 p.m. weekdays.)