On Monday, Aug. 16, during the annual State of the University address, Dickinson State University President Steve Easton and his executive team spoke of the resiliency of DSU.

The State of the University address comes only days after DSU announced that first day enrollment numbers indicated an upward increase of nearly 5%, showing continued growth with a 4.7% increase compared to last fall.

“We are delighted to be showing an enrollment increase on the first day of fall classes,” Debora Dragseth, provost and vice president for academic affairs, said.

She noted that while the official census count has yet to be completed, scheduled for Sept. 20, the institution's aim remains in meeting the increased attendance goal via partnerships with area high schools in offering dual credit courses.

The number of students living on campus witnessed an increase as well, according to Mark Jastorff, vice president for student affairs and university relations.

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“This is the first time in many years that our residence halls are operating at near capacity,” he said.

Riding the positive enrollment news into Monday's State of the University address, the addressed focused on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic during the 2020-21 academic year. According to Easton, while challenging the difficulties provided opportunities for success for the University.

Among the topics discussed, Easton and executive team members highlighted the institution’s recent achievements which included the university's recent decision to pass savings on to students in the form of a two-year tuition freeze.

Kent Anderson, DSU chief financial officer noted that for the first time in the last decade, the university submitted a balanced budget and projected revenue moving in a positive position for the University. Given the positive financial position, Anderson said that the executive team were confident in their recent decisions.

A challenge for the institution the last several years has been budget reductions as a direct result of revenue loss from a faltering energy and agriculture industry which ended 2020 with a substantial, pandemic-induced shortfall in oil tax revenue across the state.

Universities across the state have relied heavily on oil and gas revenue as a central driver of funding, but plummeting oil demand over the past year left many state lawmakers with a substantially smaller pool to work with.

Sharing his optimism for the future, Easton said his goals remains to innovate and maintain affordable tuition rates for students.

“Dickinson State is listening to its community partners, adding new programs in areas of need, innovating how courses are delivered to meet students where they are and keeping education affordable," he said. "These initiatives have resulted in an even stronger, more viable DSU. Our faculty and staff have accomplished much in the face of adversity."

Easton added, "As our five-year strategic plan illustrates, I believe DSU is in a great place as we work toward our vision.”

The DSU Heritage Foundation (DSUHF) is a critical part of the University’s strategic plan, according to executive members. For only the second time in the school’s history, the Foundation awarded over $1 million in scholarships — surpassing previous awards by substantial margins.

Ty Orton, DSUHF executive director, said he expects that the number of scholarships will only increase over the coming years.

“The focus on scholarships is integral to the University’s mission of keeping the cost of higher education affordable for our students and their families,” Orton said. “We don’t want financial challenges to be a barrier for students.”

The State of the University Address touched on the growing pains of the necessary and rapid changes ushered by COVID-19, and the attitudes of students toward higher education in general.

Debora Dragseth, provost and vice president for academic affairs at DSU, noted that despite some disagreement about the direction of the University, the collective atmosphere on campus remains open to discourse and debate.

“We hope to encourage an atmosphere on our campus where we will be in open dialogue, showing each other respect, even when we may disagree,” Dragseth said.

Dickinson State University announced the launch of its strategic plan entitled, “5 Years in Focus: A Blueprint for DSU’s Future 2021-2026.”

Deb Nelson, CEO of DLN Consulting, an organization that assists businesses with strategic planning and more, worked with a team of faculty, staff, students and external stakeholders over the past year to develop a strategic plan for the University.

Nelson presented said plan and it is available for public review at dickinsonstate.edu/strategicplan. The plan highlights DSU’s continued efforts for financial stability, responsiveness to industry, student success, research and system cohesiveness.

Carrie Hauser, a dual mission expert and CEO of Colorado Mountain College, a large dual mission institution system in Colorado, spoke to the campus on the critical elements of the strategic plan — the institution’s commitment to its dual mission.

“Adopting a dual mission puts DSU ahead of the curve. The industry is changing," she said. "You will soon be the rule, not the exception. Dickinson State will always retain its liberal arts foundation, but now it will also have a career and technical education focus that is so critical to surviving in higher education today.”

The University said they expect their fall numbers to be strong, despite ongoing statewide spikes of the Delta variant. This fall, DSU will host COVID-19 testing and vaccination opportunities for students, staff and faculty.

“The best tool that we have right now to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus is having as many of our campus community fully vaccinated as possible,” Easton said.

Although DSU will strongly encourage masks, their usage will remain optional as the academic year begins — though faculty are permitted to require masks in their individual classrooms and learning spaces.

Overall, according to Dragseth, the campus remains positive in looking forward to a successful year.

“Fulfilling our mission has taken on a bit of a different look due to the pandemic, but our faculty and staff are excited to begin another year of making a positive impact on our students and our region.”