Ten years ago this month Central Lakes College was given life by the 1991 Legislature that established the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, the state's largest public higher education system.
Merged were Brainerd Community College and Brainerd-Staples Technical College. BCC was the liberal arts institution; BSTC had become the career education center with vocational programs established in both communities and directed by local school boards.
Growing pains and blended-family challenges have not kept the state's first comprehensive community and technical college from matriculating and graduating thousands of students. CLC alumni are everywhere.
These young lumberjacks participated in one of the "enrichment" activities that have been part of college life in Brainerd and Staples, before and after the merger.
Advocates of the modern format such as offered at CLC cite today's blended college as a benefit to students who are given expanded opportunities. They favor offering the best of both worlds in a system designed to promote lifelong learning.
Today's graduate may earn numerous degrees, diplomas and certificates. Some have obtained not just the vocational-based associate in applied science with immediate employment in mind. They also may choose to earn the associate in arts degree.
Both AAS and AA degrees have transfer credit capability as a springboard to the bachelor's degree. In a growing number of instances, a graduate pursuing a bachelor's degree may earn that degree from a university or college partner offering programs on the CLC campus. Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall and the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth offer four-year degrees in some programs where course work is completed in Brainerd.
Legal secretary students from a career education-based Brainerd Technical College, showed their dancing form in this archival image. Central Lakes College offers degrees in administrative assistant, medical secretary and office assistant.
Before the merger, a student would have needed admittance to multiple colleges, incurring additional time and expense associated with the application and registration process. Now, students in liberal arts and vocational programs share the library and computer commons, eat in the same cafeteria and register for classes at the same admissions windows.
When the 1995 merger took effect, some were anxious. Could there really be an alignment of classroom credit transfers? This complicated and contentious process drew a large number of complaints, but MnSCU Chancellor James H. McCormick believes the system that includes CLC is delivering on the vision created at the merger's start -- providing opportunity for even the most far-flung students.
"We've developed wonderful collaborative relationships," McCormick said. "We have 56 programs on two-year college campuses that allow students to earn four-year degrees without leaving that campus. That would not have been possible without having these working relationships."
"I would do it all over again, exactly the same way," said Ashley Livingood, Langdon, N.D., who earned her AAS in horticulture in 2004 and is a 2005 honors graduate with an AA degree transferring to the College of St. Scholastica.
She doesn't need to go to Duluth, where St. Scholastica is located. She is a double major in management and organizational behavior by taking classes two nights per week in Brainerd.
Counselor Roy Androli taught at Brainerd Technical College in 1983, when this photo was taken. He has 33 years in education and says of Central Lakes College: "Who wouldn't want to work here?"
"I have absolutely no regrets whatsoever," said the farm girl who also earned diplomas in greenhouse production and floral design at CLC. She had earned some general credits during one year at Minnesota State University, Moorhead.
Higher education in central Minnesota started in 1938 with Brainerd Junior College, while Staples opened in 1950 and 21 years later relocated to the north edge of town near the Crow Wing River. Both communities originally housed post-secondary courses in facilities owned by local school districts.
In 1963, BJC became the first school in the state junior college system to have its own separate building. By that time, Brainerd Technical Institute was spawned as an extension of the K-12 program, with "college" replacing "institute" after a few years. It remained part of the school district until CLC was formed.
Over the next 35 years enrollment growth in Brainerd brought five major building projects. By 1992, the community college campus had 1,800 students.
One year earlier, the technical colleges in Brainerd and Staples combined and continued to grow on the strength of technical programs. The Staples campus had expanded in 1985.
Fritz Bertelt, a Brainerd Junior College graduate, since 1974 has been an instructor at his alma mater. Before it was CLC, Bertelt said, the smaller, friendly assembly of instructors and students seemed almost like a family. "You knew everyone," he said. "We saw each other every day and the atmosphere was cohesive and supportive."
He said that by its nature as a larger institution within a larger system and with two campuses, a "personal edge" may have been lost. "I don't know all the faculty, because I don't see them" at morning coffee around what had been a cozy gathering area: the mailroom.
"That's just the way it is with bigger organizations," he said. "It can be dehumanizing."
He feels for today's students who, unlike earlier times, are footing much more of the bill as state and local support has been reduced. But Bertelt says the instructional commitment of qualified faculty continues to drive the institution that has evolved from his alma mater.
Fritz Bertelt, CLC instructor since 1974
Roy Androli, counselor, has spent most of his 33 years in education in the vocational arena -- 17 years with Brainerd Technical College and seven with the merged Brainerd-Staples Technical College. In his ninth year at CLC he chose a phased retirement and finds the college a hard place to leave.
"Just look at the building -- it's beautiful," he said. "The grounds are well-kept, and the general atmosphere is also representative of the commitment to education by everyone here. Who wouldn't want to work here?"
Androli cites what he feels are elements favoring the merged college:
* A smoother, verifiable budgetary process with less favoritism.
* Consolidated student records for easier transfer to other colleges.
* Entrance testing and assessment of registering students to support student success with appropriate course placement.
* Consolidation of unions representing vocational and liberal arts faculty.
* Data showing successful graduate transfers toward bachelor's degrees and 95 percent career program-related job placement.
While touting its educational enhancements in online courses, weekend and evening classes, and distance learning progress with interactive television, CLC retains traditional strengths that draw most students. The college has built upon its niche as the inexpensive option closer to home for students who are either undecided after high school or seek career skills and immediate employment in a technical or specific-skill occupation.
Programs such as heavy equipment operations and maintenance and photographic imaging technology have grown at Staples. The Brainerd campus natural resources, dental assistant, nursing, horticulture and business-related programs have a history of success. More recently, criminal justice has emerged as a popular career education choice.
World economic influences have played into decisions regarding the delivery of training in other areas, such as machine tool technology, auto body repair and travel planning.
Sally Ihne was president of the college when CLC's $24 million west wing opened in 1996, more than doubling the size of the campus that had been home to Brainerd Community College. She and legislators such as then-state Sen. Don Samuelson had worked hard for the facility after then-Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe spearheaded the creation of MnSCU.
"This is certainly an example of collaboration," Ihne said at the time. It is a concept she nurtured, along with the fundamental belief CLC should always provide lifetime learning opportunities. "Our first priority is to sustain a dynamic and progressive presence in the lives of all who come to us for knowledge," she said in 2001, her final president's report before retiring.
Sometimes forces of change blow an ill wind that makes it more difficult for education providers to steer a steady course. As one CLC supporter and employer of graduates puts it, correcting the course takes time.
A few technical programs at Staples were "shrinking due to a decrease in enrollment, which is understandable but still a concern," said Reg Clow of Clow Stamping, Merrifield. "On the positive side I now attend a lot of meetings with other community leaders in the Business and Industry Center at CLC."
He said the staff that serves small businesses and entrepreneurs with customized training is "doing a bang-up job."
"Nevertheless, I can't believe it has been 10 years (since CLC began)," Clow said.
Joe Birmingham leaves CLC after four years as president to return to his home state of Texas to head Weatherford College. His legacy includes the creation of a strategic plan accepted by the Higher Learning Commission accrediting agency.
His tenure also produced the expansion of Web-based courses, the completion of the Skone Family Conservatory Housed in the Humphrey Center for American Indian Studies, the development of two federally funded student support services -- TRiO and Upward Bound -- and the creation of an academic master plan to guide development of new programs and expansion of others.
Progress has been made, he said, to retain students and add to the partnerships with state universities to offer more bachelor's degree programs in Brainerd. Cultural diversity and anti-racism training have moved forward as well, he said, aided by two grant programs.
Among partnership priorities, Birmingham has fostered collaborations with business, industry and area school districts. He instituted the faculty emeritus policy and inaugural celebration to honor past instructors.
Ashley Livingood, Langdon, N.D. resident who earned both an AAS and an AA degree at CLC
The college organizational chart was reshaped as Birmingham established an administrative leadership team led by Ted Spring, vice president of academic affairs.
Spring said CLC is poised for growth and will adhere to the master plan developed under Birmingham's direction through a shared governance concept to include faculty and staff, with community work force needs an integral component.
"Heavy equipment operations and maintenance has been earmarked for growth," Spring said. "In addition to the $4.8 million facility expansion, the program will add faculty and staff" as the 30,000 square-foot addition goes up. The heavy equipment campus last was updated in 1999 with a $1.72 million classroom, office and laboratory complex.
Spring said the registered nursing program will expand and be offered at the Staples campus within the year. State funding has been allocated to build a science lab on the Staples campus, a move expected to improve the college's ability to carry forward allied health-care initiatives with regional partners.
Photographic imaging technology has a second full-time instructor to meet enrollment demand in that Staples program.
Carol Tulikangas, an associate vice president for academic affairs and lead administrator at the Staples campus, is optimistic. "Manufacturing across the region is rebounding after the recent downturn," she said, "and enrollment in manufacturing programs at Staples is starting to reflect the growing awareness that skilled jobs are once again available for graduates in machine trades, mechanical design, and robotics.
"The diesel and heavy equipment technician program was restructured to allow students to complete a diploma program in 11 months," she said, noting that enrollment is strong for fall.
"The college expects continued growth in online courses to increase accessibility and flexibility for students," Spring said. He added that CLC is investigating the creation of allied health programs to address needs within the region.
"The college is not focusing on new students alone," he said. "Retention of current students and strategies to help students keep engaged in a program of study will be an area of focus."
On the Brainerd campus, the next two years will be exciting ones for the music department. Michelle Sakry, vocal, and Steve Anderson, instrumental, are full-time instructors and ensemble directors who have witnessed growth. In little more than a decade, enrollment in music classes has quadrupled.
The downside to this phenomenon is overcrowding as students in new classes, such as American popular music, music industry, music and world cultures, and audio recording "fight for breathing room." Storage and rehearsal needs of both theater and music departments also has been troublesome.
"We could never get the table saw in the same key as the brass ensemble," said Anderson, describing thin walls that don't stop sounds from bleeding through.
The music addition approved in the 2005 bonding bill and expected to cost about $1.1 million will provide office space for several adjunct music faculty who were added as the curriculum expanded. In addition to courses that provide degree credits to 400-500 students per week during the academic year, CLC offers individual voice training, choral and instrumental ensembles, and piano and guitar lessons.
CLC will have an interim president during the 2005-06 academic year, with a permanent successor expected to be in place by the following year. MnSCU officials were to name the interim leader Wednesday at ceremonies on the Brainerd campus at 6:30 p.m. and the Staples campus at 7:45 p.m.
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