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Crookston chancellor Charles Casey.

Chancellor Charles Casey

Envisioning something big

Q&A with Crookston chancellor Charles Casey

By Gayla Marty

Brief, March 1, 2005

When Charles Casey became chancellor of the University's Crookston campus last summer, he and his wife, Barbara Muesing, moved back to the farm that was her family home, about an hour from campus. When Casey heads west from the farm on U.S. Highway 2, he crosses the point where "the pines meet the prairie" and watches the land flatten into the basin of glacial Lake Agassiz and blacken into the soil of the Red River Valley.

The former veterinarian, University regent, and dean and director of the Extension Service had packed up his office in red-brick Coffey Hall in St. Paul and unpacked in Crookston's historic, yellow-brick Selvig Hall in August, when the flowers were in full bloom. On March 3, the flowers will be all inside as Crookston fills its buildings with bouquets in honor of Casey's formal inauguration.

Casey comes to the job at a critical time for the University as it charts a course to become one of the top three public research universities in the world. While the Crookston campus houses an experiment station established in 1895 and this year celebrates a centennial as successor to the Northwest School of Agriculture, it's only been granting four-year degrees since 1993.

Despite his soft-spoken manner, Casey is clearly optimistic about this campus that was the first college in the nation to offer laptop computers to every student and is now rediscovering its niche in a higher education-rich region. UMNnews: What is it about the U of M at Crookston that made you want to be chancellor? Casey: First of all, of course, it's close to home. We plan to live here for a long time, so we're interested in the value of the Crookston campus to northwestern Minnesota. My heart is in rural Minnesota and I guess you'd say I have this love affair with the University of Minnesota. Part of what I liked about Extension was being on the farms and in the small towns and bringing the U to the people.

Agriculture has changed so much over the century of the University's presence in northwestern Minnesota. How do you see Crookston responding to those changes?

It's common knowledge that the average farm size is bigger and farm population is lower today. But, no matter how it's organized, someone's got to be doing the work that gets the food out of the field. The sustainable or organic farming sector is growing, and those farms tend to be smaller. If you look at agricultural education at the University of Minnesota--at the Twin Cities and Crookston campuses--one difference is just in what kind of campus environment a student prefers--large campus or small college. But also, at Crookston, we have a combination of programs that allows young people to farm or they can go into agriculture-related businesses and industries. They graduate with good applied skills, with real leadership skills, and are highly competent in technology. They can farm, or work in business, or start their own business. We want them to think as entrepreneurs.

When it comes to diversity, how has Crookston changed in the past few decades?

This region has historically attracted what was then called migrant labor because of the sugar beet industry. It's clear from looking just at the K-6 school population that our Hispanic community is growing. In Warroad [near the Canadian border], Marvin Windows has a workforce diversity that a lot of people would not expect...Southeast Asians have added a real vibrancy to that community. This community and this region have greater diversity than ever before.

How might international connections figure in the Crookston campus's future?

Where I see potential for us is in relationships with Asia. With Zhejiang, China, we're working with the University's China Center on a project in which UMC faculty will provide curriculum toward an associate degree in agriculture and business. After completing that, students will come to Crookston to finish a bachelor's degree from the University of Minnesota. With Kyungwon University in Korea, we've started a program in which UMC offers English as a second language as a transition to college, either on this campus or at another U.S. university. Our leadership in online course development is a good fit for distance learning and international education.

What role do you see the Crookston campus playing in the University's goal to become one of the top three public research universities in the world?

It's a good question, and you can believe our campus task force is working on answering it. We submitted a progress report in December and our final report is due March 31.

What we're good at is using education in an applied way--it's the application of the information that distinguishes what we do here at UMC. But there's not a general understanding of what we're good at, so we need to be clearer and better at defining and describing it.

We know we've been a leader in integrating technology into the curriculum. We know employers like our students because technology is integrated with their other learning and skills and because our graduates can lead. UMC also has real strength in distance education and online learning. We're the first University campus to offer online degrees--the first was a bachelor of applied health, and we just got approval for a bachelor of manufacturing management. We bring those capabilities to the U. To build our own research capacity, we want to make better connections with the research infrastructure at the U and use that to our advantage.

If you look at the University's systemwide goals related to diversity, international, and preK-12 education each of those areas, Crookston has a stake and brings experience from northwest Minnesota to the University as a whole. We also need to be part of how the University meets those goals.

UMC's entire history has been one of serving this community and region and responding to local needs, and we will continue to do that. Located on this campus are not only UMC but the Extension Service regional center, the Northwest Research and Outreach Center, and the Northwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership. All four of us are the U in northwestern Minnesota.

What are you doing to improve the education experience at Crookston? What questions are you asking?

How do we build on our successes and strengths? How do we make this an outstanding place for people to come, and to stay, and to graduate? We will continue to emphasize the student-faculty relationship because we know that's strong, and we know from student surveys that our advising ranks above the University average. But the student experience is a continuum that includes recruitment, admissions, the classroom, the lab...and we need to exceed students' expectations in every area in order to increase our retention and graduation rates. How can we offer more undergraduate research opportunities? How can we prepare our graduates to work in a global society? That means understanding and learning how to work in other cultures, research experience, excellent communication skills both oral and written, and being able to think strategically. How do we partner with other parts of the U, with other colleges in our region, and with colleges around the world?

Those are the kinds of specific things we're looking at. We know we have to do a lot of little things right, and it will add up to something big.

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