Anne Blackhurst – Bidding MSUM Farewell

Dr. Anne Blackhurst retires at the end of June after 10 years at the helm of Minnesota State University Moorhead. Photos/MSUM.

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

Dr. Anne Blackhurst is packing away her extensive wardrobe of red blazers three weeks from now.

Retiring after 10 years at the helm of Minnesota State University Moorhead, the president is heading for Orcas Island in the Pacific Northwest. She and her late husband, Joe Walsh, bought a home on the craggy Washington island – closer to Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia, than it is to Seattle – many years ago, where they planned to enjoy their golden years together.

Instead, the 62-year-old is moving alone. She has pared down her professional wardrobe of red and black from a peak of 45 red toppers to just one or two. “I love MSUM, and have worn Dragon colors proudly,” she says, smiling. “But I’ll be happy to retire the red and black June 30. Maybe I’ll keep one blazer.”

She adds, “I’ve worn those colors proudly since my second month as president. They’re a symbol of my pride in MSUM. It has been about much more than just clothes.”

Blackhurst has presided over the eighth largest of Minnesota’s 11 public universities since 2014, when she succeeded its 10th president, Dr. Edna Szymanski. It has been a time of great challenges and change for the 135-year-old college, begun to train teachers for rural Minnesota schools, but dramatically evolved into a university offering a comprehensive range of mostly liberal-arts majors to its 5,000-plus students.

During her decade, the Moorhead university hammered out a new strategic vision to fit the changing landscape of higher education. The president has met the challenges of limited funding and the dwindling number of young people of the traditional collegiate age. Pinched by a predicted $6 million budgetary shortfall in the first months of the pandemic, she faced the difficult and unpopular necessity of closing down 10 academic programs and laying off 66 faculty, administrators and staff – 10% of the total.

“They were very difficult decisions,” she acknowledges. “People didn’t understand, and they wanted someone to blame.” Social media, in particular, were brutal. Looking back on that period, she says, “I’m grateful that it has given me a much thicker skin. You can’t be a leader without making decisions. No matter how sound or how necessary, a certain percentage of people will be unhappy. It feels personal, but it’s not – not really.”

Yet the graceful executive can celebrate the outcome of the times that have tested her.

“Tim [Dr. Timothy Downs, who takes over for her on July 1] will take over a very different university than the one I did in 2014, with a balanced budget and several million dollars in one-time funding to invest in realizing his vision,” she muses. “The Legislature was very good to higher education, investing a historic high of $650 million in our system. It brings more new money into our system than we’ve seen in 40 years. Wow, I am so happy for him! He’ll have quite a different beginning.

Today, she says, MSUM can look forward to a more promising and positive future. While the number of college-age young people is still on the way down, the university’s focus has shifted to areas with opportunities for growth. One is its growing outreach to what she terms “people traditionally underserved by education,” including people of color, those with low incomes and adults who didn’t finish degrees the first time around … and students now pursuing graduate degrees, including the 12 master’s and doctorate programs initiated during her tenure.

“Growth is not out of the question,” she says cautiously, “and graduate students are helping boost our numbers. But these are not the good old days, when the population was growing and we had more students than the colleges knew what to do with.

“The landscape is very different today. To thrive, we have to attract students we haven’t in the past.”

While the president was facing professional challenges on campus, her personal life was becoming more difficult. When she moved here in 2011 to become MSUM’s provost and senior vice president for academic affairs – the prelude to applying for the presidency – her husband William was at her side. A retired educator 23 years her senior, he left behind 30 years at the University of Minnesota Mankato.

Two months after they moved here – “he was so enthusiastic,” Anne recalls – He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. “If I’d known, I’m not sure we would have moved here, taking him away from his family and colleagues,” she says now.

As his condition worsened, “we realized I clearly couldn’t care for him at home,” she says. Instead, they decided together that he would move into an assisted living facility back in Mankato, where he’d be surrounded by long-time friends. He moved in 2016. Since then, Anne made the five-hour drive to the city southwest of Minneapolis-St. Paul on every weekend, save those when she had university obligations here in Moorhead. He passed away one year ago a few days before MSUM’s commencement.

Looking back on her career, Anne says, “Anyone who knew me in my youth would have told you I was the least likely person they knew to become a college president. I was not a strong student. Teachers kept noting that I ‘was failing to live up to my potential.’

“I failed every class during my first semester of college,” she continues. “Then something clicked … and I couldn’t stop getting degrees.” The Idaho native received her bachelor’s degree in counseling from Boise State University; her master’s degree in counseling from the College of Idaho in Caldwell, Idaho; and her doctorate in college student personnel from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.

Anne’s resume includes stints as director of residence life at the College of Idaho and Ohio University, assistant dean of student life at Marietta (Ohio) College, and a series of roles in Mankato, from teaching counseling and heading the department to dean of graduate studies and research and acting vice president for academic and student affairs.

When she and her husband came to Moorhead, neighbors soon came to recognize them with their golden doodles Roscoe and Sadie – Joe biking and Anne running with them as she trained for marathons. “I have so many memories of him walking them around Moorhead,” she shares.

Both dogs are gone now, lost during the last 18 months. After initially thinking she could never bear to another, Anne broke down a few months ago and arranged to adopt a new puppy. She will pick up her new housemate late this month as she packs her car for the drive to the San Juan Islands. She looks forward to seeing more of her father and siblings, who still live in Idaho, and her son and his family from Tulsa. “My closest friends live all over the country,” she adds. “I hope they all come to visit me.”

She’ll take along her best and most lasting memories of Moorhead. They all, she says, are about the hundreds of students she has come to know well over her dozen years on the campus. “Our students are simply wonderful. They are creative. Quirky,” the soon-to-be-retired president reflects. “MSUM is the place where they have come to find, and do find, their sense of belonging.”

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