Trial by fire: President Park reflects on first five years

March 29, 2011

Chadron State College President Dr. Janie Park speaks during her inauguration ceremony in April 2006. (Photo by Justin Haag) Chadron State College President Dr. Janie Park speaks during her inauguration ceremony in April 2006. (Photo by Justin Haag)

Chadron State College President Janie Park said the institution has made great progress in many areas during her five years as president, even though her tenure began with a string of bizarre incidents that brought unwanted national attention.

Park, the college’s first woman president who marked five years in August, has had numerous instances of trial by fire – figuratively and literally. In 2006, during her first year, a wildfire threatened the campus as it roared over the hills to the south. As CSC housed firefighters and served as headquarters for firefighting efforts, Park joined Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman and other officials for a press conference on the front steps of the Student Center.

Other peculiar occurrences early in her tenure included the disappearance of a math professor who was found dead in the hills south of campus months after his vanishing, a campus lockdown prompted by a group of Montana fugitives passing through the community, the stabbing death of a student near campus and a vehicle accident that seriously injured six members of the wrestling team.

“Each one tested our emergency protocols, helping us identify problems with each,” she said. “They were all learning experiences. Each one was unique. It seems there’s no end to the different kinds of emergencies. When you have an organization, such as a college, with this many employees and a couple thousand students on campus, you know that bad things will occasionally happen. There are just that many possibilities. On the other hand, there are that many possibilities for great things to happen.”

Park said the high points have far outnumbered the lows during her time at CSC, noting that many initiatives by the faculty, staff and students have brought positive change for the institution. Among the top achievements has been a steady growth of enrollment, which reversed a downward trend for the institution.

CSC has experienced incredible growth in its online offerings, and has been recognized for having the best buy of online Master of Business Administration degrees in the nation. The number of graduate students has more than doubled, as CSC personnel have worked to improve its offerings.

“Our online offerings have grown tremendously helping provide educational opportunities to students who can’t attend classes in Chadron,” she said.

Many other programs have charted incredible success. Park pointed out the programs related to agriculture, such as rangeland and wildlife management, which have grown from less than 20 students to more than 100.

“I’m glad that we are having so much success in that area, because it is the bedrock of the economy in this region,” she said.

CSC has received frequent affirmation of the quality of its programs, including high marks from the Higher Learning Commission during the reaccreditation process in 2007. In addition, CSC received recognition last year from national publications for its outstanding service to active military personnel and veterans.

Park also takes a lot of pride in the facility improvements and campus beautification efforts.

The most notable projects include improvements to two of CSC’s oldest structures. The first building ever constructed on campus, Old Admin, was renovated to become a state-of-the-art teaching facility. Also, Sparks Hall, which formerly consisted of apartments, was renovated and expanded to house Park’s office and a variety of other services.

CSC also has earned recognition for its efforts to be “green,” among them student projects and the implementation of landscaping to conserve water and further beautify the campus.

“Our campus landscaping is a work in progress, and we’ve come a long way in making a beautiful campus even more attractive,” she said.

Park said she has enjoyed her involvement with Vision 2011, the Chadron State Foundation’s first-ever multi-million-dollar fund-raising campaign. The campaign will result in more scholarships and new and improved facilities for athletics, rangeland management, wildlife management, veterinary science and rodeo programs. The effort is scheduled to wrap up this year as a highlight of the college’s centennial celebration.

“We have not quite a year to go in the campaign, and I’m sure we will be more than successful in that effort,” she said. “It’s been a really positive experience.”

CSC’s initiatives to improve the diversity of its student body are also paying off, with many students from other countries attending CSC as part of federal programs and signed memorandums of understanding with a number of eastern European institutions.

“We’ve more than doubled the number of international students on campus during my time here,” she said. “We’ve also increased the number of students who are participating in study abroad and study away programs that have broadened their perspective of the world.”

Park hopes CSC can attract students from many nations, including China and other countries that have not traditionally been represented among CSC students.

“I think it’s important for us to have a few students from many different cultures on this campus so that our students have a broad view of the world,” she said.

Park also values the importance of the NCAA Division II athletics program at CSC, and said she will continue to support efforts to make the Eagles even stronger.

“Athletics are a truly important part of our college,” she said. “Without our athletic programs and the coaches’ recruiting, our enrollment would suffer. Those programs are a big piece of who we are.”

Park and her husband, Tom, have traveled to most of the away football games during the past six seasons, and have enjoyed watching the successes of the Eagles’ teams. She said following the football team at its peak was among the most fun experiences of her life.

“We had four fabulous years of football in which we had conference championships, playoff appearances and a two-time Harlon Hill winner,” she said. “We’ll be living off that excitement for a long time. It will be hard to replicate that success in the future because those years were so outstanding. I was so glad to be here during that time. I had absolutely nothing to do with that success, but I got to enjoy it.”

Park also is supportive of efforts to strengthen the athletic teams that haven’t been as strong.

“We’ll get our programs that have had some setbacks back on track,” she said. “Teams have ups and downs, and it’s hard to pull them out of the downs.”

Similar to presidents of colleges and universities throughout the United States, Park has led CSC during a time of increased operating costs and shortfalls in state funding.

“Budgets for institutions of higher education across the nation are continually under pressure, and Nebraska is no different,” she said. “Nebraska still values higher education and funds it at a level higher than many other states. Even though we’re not getting all of the funding we need from the state, we feel very fortunate that we are getting the funding that we are.”

She said the institution has retained an emphasis on keeping student costs low, despite the funding challenges.

“Even through the budget cuts, we have endeavored to keep our tuition as low as possible,” she said. “Considering the students we serve, we want to continue to be a college of access and opportunity.”

She said the “belt tightening” required has been a challenge, but said it has prompted the college to evaluate its priorities.

“It’s not all bad to look at your institution under budget constraints, but it’s always very difficult for everybody involved,” she said. “In our case, it resulted in some layoffs and unfilled vacancies, creating a difficult time for the institution. In some ways, I believe we’re stronger now because we have a better sense of what our focus should be.”

Park said she’s honored to serve as president during CSC's centennial celebration this year.

“To be here at a time the institution is celebrating its 100th year of service has been something special,” she said.

Despite the evolution from a teachers college to a comprehensive college offering more than 70 programs of study with professional and liberal arts offerings, she said CSC’s primary task is not much different than it was in 1911 when its first classes convened.

“In many ways our mission hasn’t really changed,” she said. “Our mission has been to serve this region and the rural High Plains and we’ve done that service very well in the past 100 years.”

CSC’s array of online course and degree offerings are just another chapter of a storied tradition, she said.

“CSC has long delivered courses away from campus when it was needed,” she said. “In past decades, professors got in their vehicles and drove to other communities to teach courses. The mission to serve students away from campus has been simplified because courses can be delivered electronically.”

She said CSC continues to prepare graduates to be successful when entering the High Plains workforce.

“It’s a campus of opportunity, and it provides higher education to this rural region around us,” she said. “It allows students to earn an education and get jobs that are important to this region. Some of them include teaching, health care, rangeland management and criminal justice.”

Park, a Texas native who came to CSC from Montana State University at Billings, said she and her husband have enjoyed living in northwest Nebraska.

“Chadron is a really fine community. It’s small enough that you can become acquainted with most of the people and I found that they were very welcoming and have stayed that way,” she said.

The small size of the community and sparse population of the region does present unique challenges, though, she said. As the population, including that of high school students, continues to decline in the region, college personnel must find ways to attract and serve students.

Transportation issues, including the recent discussion of eliminating federal funds to small airports, have an effect on CSC’s success.

“It would be hard to tell someone that we’re trying to hire that we don’t have an airport,” she said.

She said Chadron businesses, especially those that hire college students, are vitally important to CSC. She also cited the Host Parent Program – in which new CSC students become acquainted with area families -- as an example of the community’s outstanding support for its college.

“The community has been very supportive of the college, and I want the college to continue being very supportive of the community.”

--Justin Haag, CSC Information Services