Retrenchment, Day 11

I went to the Beltrami County Fair yesterday afternoon, as a volunteer in the Historical Society’s exhibit, which is an 1896 homesteader log cabin that was moved to the fairgrounds. It belonged to Freeman Doud, the first white man to occupy a farm by lake Bemidji, on land that now includes Diamond Point Park and the state university campus. The cabin’s interior is roughly 300 square feet and the society has filled it with household articles from the early 20th century, to depict what the life of early white settlers in the region may have been like. It’s one of the dependable, permanent features of the fair, and people come year after year to visit and remind themselves and their children.

It was a mostly sunny Saturday afternoon, so the traffic was pretty steady in the three or four hours I was there. As people circulated through the small exhibit and children filled out little scavenger hunt sheets, locating antique toys, I had a chance to chat with local people and also with my fellow historical society volunteers. These are folks who have lived in the area for decades if not their entire lives, and who are very invested in the community. Of course, the issue naturally came up of “what the heck is happening at BSU?”

While most people probably think of Bemidji as an up-north vacation destination for fishing or boating, or the big town to visit for ice creams, shopping, and a photo with Paul and Babe when they’re up at camp or visiting the Mississippi headwaters at Lake Itasca, it’s also a college town. Maybe not quite as much in the way Northfield Minnesota is, with both Carleton and St. Olaf. But BSU is a big employer in the region, and in the past it has been a center for both sports and cultural life.

This came up in the conversations I had in the Doud Cabin yesterday. A retired Bemidji schoolteacher brought up the previous retrenchment about a decade ago, when she remembered, “they shut down the theater program.” BSU’s connection with the community through dramatic productions and the connection to the city’s community theater had apparently been so strong that it is remembered over a decade later by people who are still disappointed with its loss.

I’m not entirely sure what the mechanisms of the strong connections were, in the decades before the previous retrenchment. I imagine the link was partly created by theater instructors and students who volunteered their time in the community. And by locals who came to campus to see shows and were inspired to produce their own. There’s still a community theater in Bemidji with dedicated volunteers producing shows, but it must have been so much more in its heyday.

The university does more than just pay the city to lease its location and employ local workers — although this is also important and the loss of more workers will have an effect on the economy. It also acts as a cultural center and a sort of beacon to high schools in the region that there are people in their city who are doing research and scholarship. I don’t think we’ve done a particularly good job over the last decade or so, reaching out into the community in a deliberate and organized way. Sure, individuals have maintained or developed ties. I’m president of the local historical society’s board of directors. And I know some colleagues who have done sustainability projects or have visited the high school to talk about our programs or supervise concurrent enrollment “College in the High School” classes. But to a great extent, I think this has been ad hoc activity by individual faculty members, not an organized engagement by the university. That’s a problem.

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