Outgoing Northland Community and Technical College President Dennis Bona says, while the landscape of community colleges has changed over the past decade, he believes schools such as Northland “serve an absolute need” in communities, including East Grand Forks and Thief River Falls.
Bona wrapped up his time as president of the college at the end of December. He was chosen as president of the college -- with campuses in East Grand Forks and Thief River Falls -- in 2015. Bona leaves with 41 years of experience in higher education.
A lot has changed in higher education and within community colleges across the country during the past decade and during Bona’s time as president at Northland. Community college enrollment has been declining nationally since 2010 and the student demographics have been changing, along with the emergence of online education.
“College students are very good consumers of higher education,” he said. “They don't just go someplace because it's close by home, because geographic barriers don't mean as much anymore.”
Bona said it took “a tremendous effort to right size the institution” but the college now has a sustainable budget based on the number of students attending NCTC.
“We serve an absolute need in all the communities that we serve,” he said. “It will be there; it's just going to be scaled differently than it did back around 2010.”
While a leadership transition always takes some adjustments, Bona said he believes the faculty and staff at Northland will do well going forward.
“I think the tradition here has been, when people are planning on retiring or leaving, they leave it a little bit better for the person that’s taking over,” he said.
Interim President Shannon Jesme, who will serve in that role for the next six months, said it will be important to promote a sense of stability and keep going with the college’s strategic plan over the next several months.
While a six-month interim presidency isn't too long, Jesme says she thinks it’s a good amount of time to get at least one project done and do some “heavy lifting” for whoever will be the next president.
Jesme, who has been the CFO of the college for several years, said she wants to take a “deep dive” into data about East Grand Forks and Thief River Falls for the next president. She wants to help identify the strengths of each community and any possible areas of growth.
“The two campuses are more dissimilar than they're similar,” she said, adding that the data will give the next president a “step up” in understanding the communities.
The pandemic has had an impact on student enrollment at Northland as well -- about a 10% drop -- but Jesme noted that some of that was the doing of the college itself, limiting the number of students who could take a specific course based on the amount of space available to make the course COVID-safe.
“We chose to, because of social-distancing requirements and the confines of the space instructional space, we limited the size of that incoming class,” she said. “So we did feel that decline, it wasn't from a student not choosing to come here. In this case, it was from us having to limit the amount we could take in several of those programs.”
Jesme said she hopes the college will be able to gain those student numbers later when a coronavirus vaccine is more readily available.
Completing student housing at Northland and getting reaccredited -- a typically very cumbersome process for schools that does typically end with reaccreditation -- were two highlights of his presidency. Additionally, Bona said completing facilities projects at both the East Grand Forks and the Thief River Falls campuses were successful efforts.
Bona added that the college gave football a “good run” during his time as president. His first year as president was the first year football had returned to campus in some time, but the program was ultimately closed in 2019.
“That was a very difficult decision, but it is the right decision,” he said.
During his time as president, Bona said he enjoyed working with community leaders in East Grand Forks and Thief River Falls. He was engaged in rotary clubs and economic chambers in both communities.
“It was really good to work with them,” he said. “(East) Grand Forks really has a lot going for it as does Thief River Falls, no one who doesn't live here would understand that … but they really are.”
Bona has been a college president for more than a decade and now he looks forward to finding a role that allows him to continue to contribute to a community and those around him.
“I want to do something now where I'm not anybody's boss,” he said.