First woman to officially become University of Jamestown president

JAMESTOWN, N.D. -- The University of Jamestown will mark a new chapter in its storied history as Polly Peterson officially becomes the 14th president of the school that was founded in 1883. Peterson, the first woman to serve as a UJ president, re...

Polly Peterson, president of the University of Jamestown. Submitted photo

JAMESTOWN, N.D. - The University of Jamestown will mark a new chapter in its storied history as Polly Peterson officially becomes the 14th president of the school that was founded in 1883.

Peterson, the first woman to serve as a UJ president, replaced Robert Badal, who retired in March. She said the inauguration ceremony on Thursday, Sept. 27, is an opportunity to recognize UJ's roots and at the same time put the focus on the future.

"I've never been more convinced that the role of our mission is more applicable to preparing the future leaders of our country and our world as it is today," Peterson said. "It is really important that we prepare holistic graduates."

It will be an emotional moment to be standing in front of students, peers and so many special guests, Peterson said. Even though she took office in March, it was still Badal's year in many ways and now with the transition into the fall she said the role is becoming more of her own.

The university mission is to be the best career-oriented liberal arts university in the Midwest, she said. The vision for the school is to instill wholeness in its students by blending the liberal arts with professional programs and honoring a Christian tradition, she said.


"Those three things are very important to me and very much a part of why I love it here and why I want to be here," Peterson said.

The Journey to Success program is the experience of looking inward, outward, beyond and forward, she said. It is an approach to integrating the entire experience to better prepare students for a lifelong journey, she said.

"For me, that's the message," Peterson said. "If that is what we do well then we will continue to do that well."

Peterson held 20 listening sessions with students, faculty, staff and community since being named president in February. The meetings produced input in 40 areas of academics, 20 areas of co-curricular opportunities and seven areas of athletics, she said.

The focus went to ideas that fit the UJ mission and could be funded through operations, gifting or possible grant resources within five years, Peterson said. The main ideas included expanding the health and leadership programs at the UJ Fargo campus, along with growing the new mechanical engineering program to include civil, electrical, environmental and software programs in the future, she said.

Community input led to ideas for on-campus and extension programs in agriculture, she said. This could include agribusiness, agri-economics, agribanking and environmental sciences, she said.

One result of the listening sessions was hiring Sara Larson as the performing arts program manager to support in recruitment and programming within the department, she said. A coach for a men's volleyball program was hired to coincide with several other schools within the Great Plains Athletic Conference that are adding teams, she said.

The president's cabinet of eight department leaders now has an additional eight-member committee of staff who works within the departments to help improve communication, she said. It is a way to get input from within the departments, she said.


"We met over the summer and it has been quite valuable," Peterson said.

There are 1,098 students at UJ for the fall semester.

Peterson was a certified public accountant working for a top 25 firm when she took part in an audit of UJ and was later invited to come back as a controller. Her goal was to complete law school and become an estate or tax attorney, but the interaction with school officials and the return to campus prompted a change in her career trajectory.

"I loved it here and I feel like it is my calling," she said.

Peterson transitioned to the classroom and became an accounting professor for a time before taking the role of vice president of of institutional advancement, then the executive vice president role that covered the previous position and the business office. She was named vice president at the end of 2006.

Higher education is more than a job, Peterson said. In addition to working with students there are the academic activities, convocations, speaker series and musical and theatrical performances and athletic events to attend.

"It's a lifestyle and one I just embraced," Peterson said. "I've enjoyed working for a mission more than I enjoyed working for money."

For more information on inauguration activities Wednesday and Thursday, go to

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