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History of Wayne State College

Post-Vietnam until the Present

Wayne State College

Enrollment declines

When the Vietnam-era draft ended, so did high enrollment numbers for many colleges, including Wayne State. The Seymour administration responded to the decline in enrollment numbers and budget by broadening the appeal of the college, expanding its horizons, and appealing to private funding. Foreign institutes were planned for the summers, and students from Scandinavia and Wayne State traded homelands and campuses as a part of an international cultural exchange program. This was followed by a Latin-American Institute emphasizing the study of Latin-American culture, history, economics, political development, and U.S. foreign policy—culminating in a cultural trip to Mexico. Later, the college would add institutes to England and Spain as well. 

A positive note

Industrial arts

The change from a teacher’s college to a more liberal arts-focused institution was continued in the early 1970s. Ten years prior, nearly all students at the college were in teacher education—with only three percent taking non-teaching degrees. In 1971-72, 29 percent graduated with non-teaching degrees, with the largest increases in medical technology and business. 

While the building boom of the 1950s and 1960s came to an abrupt end, the applied science and home economics programs benefited from the completion of a new Applied Sciences Hall, named for Dr. Walter Benthack, a member of the college governing board (1939-45) and a prominent Wayne physician for more than half a century.

It’s the economy

As the 1980s began, the nation was entering a new era.  The decade ushered in new levels of social and economic upheaval. Japan became a strong economic competitor to the U.S., and global manufacturing began relocating to newly industrializing nations like Mexico, Korea, and Taiwan, in search of cheaper labor. Middle Eastern oil resources became an increasingly crucial factor in the world and U.S. economy. These events would “trickle down” to Nebraska and naturally affect Wayne State as well. When the nationwide recession of the early 1980s struck, land values collapsed and often forced farmers to struggle to keep their land. In response, some Nebraskans left farming, weakening the already tender economies of the rural communities. The federal debt tripled, and in 1987, the stock market lost nearly a quarter of its value. 

The farm crisis

The economic downturn of the 1980s caused thousands of farm families to lose their land because of low farm prices and tremendous debt. This created real problems as shrinking communities had fewer children to send to school. With fewer people, there was less business, and so there were fewer jobs available—and hence the migration continued.  In 1985, Tim Wrage, a 1971 Wayne State College graduate from Emerson, began fighting for farmers who were in danger of losing their family farms. Wrage’s own farm was in danger and he took the challenge personally by accepting the leadership of the 30,000-member Farm Crisis Committee. Wrage knew farmers had to find a new path in order to survive economically, and he felt that the Farm Crisis Committee could help farmers survive these difficult times. 

In March 1982, President Lyle Seymour prepared to step down after 10 years in the presidency. While his years as president were marked by economic and enrollment hard times, he had a longer and more varied association with Wayne State, as a student, faculty member, and administrator, than any other president in the school’s history. His positive and gracious demeanor and his concern for the welfare of students, faculty, and the entire Wayne State community were important factors in helping the college get through a critical period in its history. More than any other single individual, Lyle Seymour earned the title of “Mr. Wayne State.”  

Dr. Ed Elliot brings new ideas to Presidency

Dr. Ed Elliot was appointed by the board of trustees as the seventh president of Wayne State College. Elliot came to Wayne State College in 1971 as full-time faculty member and director of graduate studies. He was dean of special studies from 1973-75, vice president for academic affairs from 1975-1980, and vice president of the college from 1980-82. 

In difficult economic times with a declining high school age population, Elliot encouraged the college to begin a new dimension in institutional advancement. It included the coordination of fund raising, public relations, student recruitment, alumni development, and market research. 

As a part of this new dynamic program, Elliot secured legislative approval for granting the master’s degree in business administration (MBA). These changes not only increased enrollment, but provided a valuable service to the communities of northeast Nebraska, as once again the college filled important roles in helping local people gain the education they needed to be successful.  

In 1983, the college had seen an almost four-percent increase in enrollment. This was a positive sign and underscored the confidence that people in the Midwest had in Wayne State College. It was also a reflection of the continued efforts of the staff and the faculty to provide an excellent education and learning environment for the students. 

In 1985, the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum officially recognized Wayne State College as a teaching and community arboretum and authorized it to use that designation to increase public awareness of the indigenous Nebraska plants included in its landscape. The Wayne State Arboretum developed a nature trail, labeled the trees included in its campus, and developed a campus nature center.

Diamond Jubilee

Wayne State observed its 75th anniversary as a state institution in 1985, with a Diamond Jubilee celebration that involved nearly the entire college. The fall celebration ran from early September until Thanksgiving break. The theme was “75 Years of Educational Excellence,” and much of Wayne State’s history was reviewed and relived.

Rec Center

Elliot’s successor

The year was a turning point in another way as well. After a short three-year tenure as president, Elliott accepted the presidency of Central Missouri State University, returning to his home state. Elliott left an impressive record behind. During his brief tenure, the college’s enrollment increased each year. He created Achievement Day and awarded the school’s first honorary doctorate. The Alumni Association established active, organized chapters in six states. Dr. Elliott was responsible for the President’s Society, an organization for high-level giving to the Foundation. Elliott also cleared the way for Wayne State’s first significant building project in more than a decade, a $3.14 million Recreation Center addition to the Rice Auditorium physical education complex. It was completed two years after he left Wayne State. 

Dr. Thomas Coffey was appointed as Wayne State College’s eighth president in February of 1986. A native Minnesotan, he came to Wayne State from the presidency of Thomas More College near Covington, Ky. Coffey’s time as president was cut short when, after a strong “no confidence” vote by the faculty and a hearing into internal administrative problems by the board of trustees, he abruptly resigned. He had been in office only one year. 

A grant and a gift

The first honorary doctor of laws degree was awarded to the new governor, Kay Orr. Projections for freshman enrollment were up, and the Alumni Phonathon saw a new high, with nearly double the contributions of 1986. It would continue to establish new records almost every year during the coming decade.

Shane Giese, executive director of the Wayne State College Foundation, proudly reported that the Nebraska Scholars Program, newly renamed the John G. Neihardt Scholars Program, had received a significant contribution to its endowment from the Burlington Northern Foundation. A sad event also proved to be a great boon to the school in a much-needed time. Mrs. Barbara Buckley, a 1920 graduate, demonstrated her fondness and pride in Wayne State College by leaving one-third of her estate, valued at nearly $1 million, to her alma mater. In 1993, a plaque identifying the Barbara Neiswanger Buckley Computer Laboratory was unveiled on the first floor of the Brandenburg Education Building. 

Dr. Donald Mash takes the helm

Don Mash

Dr. Donald J. Mash, inaugurated as Wayne State College’s ninth president, would prove to be one of WSC’s great innovators. Mash came to Wayne State College from George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. During his more than 13-year tenure at George Mason, where he was executive vice president for administration, he was instrumental in helping the institution grow from 5,000 to more than 18,000 students. The Wall Street Journal featured George Mason on its front page in 1985 as an example of an institution of higher education that was successful, despite a shrinking college-age population and federal cutbacks. 

Building a bright future

As the 1990s began, Wayne State College fall enrollment was increasing dramatically, with more than 600 new freshmen registered as compared to 497 in 1988, creating a trend that would bring a new revitalization to the fatigued community. By 1994, enrollment stood at 4,000, up 35 percent from 1988.

In 1995-96, the college marked its eighth straight year of increased enrollment with a head count up 1.5 percent from the fall of 1994. And the 1995-96 school year also saw the largest graduating class ever from Wayne State College: 418 degree candidates.

With positive population and commercial growth, the state was more economically solvent. In 1994, the Nebraska Legislature approved $4 million in funding for construction of the college’s new business building. This would become a key part of the college’s Physical Campus Master Plan. The ambitious master plan called for construction and renovation of many key areas of campus to include: completion of a $3.6 million utilities infrastructure renovation, completion of the $4 million academic business administration building, a multi-phase $1 million renovation and enhancement of the outdoor recreation sports complex, completion of a $5.2 million renovation and expansion of the Student Center, the construction of Heritage Plaza, renovation of the former power plant into the Studio Arts Teaching Facility, an additional 600 parking spaces, and a complete renovation of Connell Hall.

First national fundraising campaign

In January of 1989, the Wayne State College Foundation decided to conduct the college’s first national fundraising campaign. The faculty and staff portion of the “Building Bright Futures” Campaign was launched in December of 1991. Just two years and five months later, October 1994, the Foundation hosted a Victory Celebration dinner during Homecoming weekend. The campaign had raised more than $13.5 million in deferred and cash gifts and pledges. Daniel W. and Jeanne M. Gardner of Wakefield, Neb., chaired the campaign. The Gardners also made the campaign’s leadership gift of $1.5 million. In addition, the Foundation’s annual cash gifts exceeded $1 million for the first time in its 30-year history and total assets  exceeded $2 million for the first time.

Education partnerships

The Rural Health Opportunities Program (RHOP), offered in cooperation with the University of Nebraska Medical Center, provided Wayne State students with access to medical school and eventually a rural health care practice. Wayne State also expanded its Master of Business Administration (MBA) program to meet the needs of working professionals in northeast Nebraska (where courses were offered on campus) and in Norfolk, South Sioux City, and Columbus (on extended campuses for those who were unable to attend main campus classes). 

The college was nationally recognized when it received the coveted Seven Seals Award for its responsiveness to the needs of students who had served in Operation Desert Storm. The award was presented by the National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, and demonstrated Wayne State’s commitment to the veterans it served.

A new century

In the fall of 1998, after a decade of invigorating leadership in which he helped to transform not only the Wayne State College campus, but the city of Wayne and northeast Nebraska as well, Dr. Donald Mash became chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire. Arriving at Wayne State in a period of turmoil, he left the college in a strong, positive situation. The image of Wayne State was sound, the campus had continued to expand with new construction and a stable enrollment, and things looked great as the college sought out a new president.

Dr. Shelia Stearns was selected from a group of 49 applicants to fill the presidency. Stearns became Wayne State College’s 10th president, and the first woman to lead the institution. She left Western Montana College, where she was chancellor, a position she had held since 1993. By virtue of the affiliation with the University of Montana, she also served as executive vice president of the University of Montana branch campuses at Missoula, Butte, and Helena. She had previously been vice president of university relations at the University of Montana, Missoula, where she earned her undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral degrees. 

Dr. Sheila Stearns becomes first woman President

Sheila Stearns

Wayne State College entered the new millennium with its first woman president leading the way. Stearns was emphatic about her intentions in her inaugural address: “Every decision I make, every dollar I spend, every evaluation I write, every goal in my professional life will be tied to achieving student success and academic quality.” 

Stearns’ vision for the college was based upon her belief that everyone in society benefits from college-educated, service-oriented citizens with rewarding careers: “The centerpiece of my vision for Wayne State College is a relentless focus on students, student learning, student life and student success.” She continued the long-standing tradition of teacher education being a hallmark of excellence for the school, and she fully supported the collaboration with the partner schools.

In 2003, Dr. Stearns accepted the position of commissioner of higher education for the Montana University System. Knowing that her extensive experience in Montana would help her be highly effective, Stearns was excited to move back to Montana where she had family and had spent so much of her life. Stearns helped Wayne State accomplish great things during her four-year tenure. She led the school in new initiatives and through challenging budgetary times, and brought the school to a new level of local, regional and national recognition.

Dr. Richard Collings named President

The board appointed Dr. Richard Collings to be the 11th president of Wayne State College in 2004. The Louisville, Ky., native said that he felt right at home when he and his wife, Marilyn, were on campus. “I was the first person in my family to get a bachelor’s degree, let alone two graduate degrees, so I can relate to the students at Wayne State, many of whom are first-generation college students, as well,” he said. 

Collings emphasized the college’s first priority of student learning. And the necessity of an environment conducive to teaching and learning, with programming that is appealing to students. His second priority was to connect with place-bound adults in the community for undergraduate and graduate program needs. Hand-in-hand with this is the economic outreach that Wayne State can and must provide. The school must stimulate the local economy, and “welcome the community—both adults and students—to come to our events and programs on campus,” Collings said. 

Mr. Curt Frye Assumes Presidency

Curt Fry, former vice president and dean of students at Wayne State, was named the 12th president on June 2, 2011, by the Nebraska State College System Board of Trustees. Frye had retired from Wayne State on June 30, 2009, but returned to serve as interim president upon the 2010 resignation of former President Richard Collings. Frye began working at Wayne State in 1985, serving as associate dean of students, dean of students, and in 1993 was named vice president and dean of students. Frye served as interim president from 2003 to 2004 after the resignation of Dr. Sheila Stearns.

Prior to coming to Wayne State, Frye was a teacher and coach at Cody-Kilgore and a guidance counselor in Neligh and Wayne. A native of Elk City, Frye holds a bachelor of science in education from Midland Lutheran College in Fremont and a master of science in education from Chadron State College.

During his inauguration, Frye charged the college’s faculty, staff, students and alumni to better train future leaders to return and make a difference in their communities; make every effort to attract and retain the best faculty and staff; better serve students and Northeast Nebraska; better engage faculty and staff in the learning process; and better plan for the future of the college’s facilities to match the ever-changing needs of tomorrow’s students.

Frye’s charge to the college exemplified the continued determination on the part of the college to continually push to improve, even transform, Wayne State. The evidence of this commitment can be seen all over campus in renovated facilities and in the steady growth of the size and prestige of academic programs.