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New president, strong history, propelling Valley City State University

by Kent Brick


Valley City State University President Tisa Mason, second from left, engages students in some conversation, including, from left: Hannah Schlecht, Forman; Paige Fettig, Bismarck; and Brady Matheny, Lisbon.  PHOTO COURTESY VCSU
Valley City State University President Tisa Mason, second from left, engages students in some conversation, including, from left: Hannah Schlecht, Forman; Paige Fettig, Bismarck; and Brady Matheny, Lisbon. PHOTO COURTESY VCSU

2015 was a major milestone year for Valley City State University (VCSU). The university observed its 125th anniversary, looking back over a lifespan and growth span that parallels the 126 years of North Dakota statehood. It was also the first full year of service for new president Dr. Tisa Mason, who stepped into that post in late 2014.

Mason came to VCSU from a position as vice president for student affairs at Fort Hays (Kansas) State University. In her first year as VCSU president, Mason has embraced the community atmosphere that has long driven VCSU success.

“We tell our students that this is an institution where you’re going to be part of a family,” Mason says. “You are going to be known by name, and people are going to ask about your life, and are going to work with you in a lot of different ways. We want students to feel comfortable coming here.”

Situating students comfortably and productively in college life is a strong aspect of Mason’s career. Before Fort Hays State University, Mason served as dean of student life at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, in Whitewater, Wis., and as executive director of the Sigma Kappa Sorority and Foundation, Indianapolis, Ind.

As she completed her first year leading VCSU, Mason presided at an all-campus meeting, and took great satisfaction in reviewing for students, faculty and staff many recent VCSU accomplishments. Among them: being recognized as the “Number One Public Regional College in the Midwest” by U.S. News and named a U.S. News “Best College” for the 18th consecutive year; a record student enrollment of 1,422 students; strengthened residential life experience through improved residential facilities (about 380 students in residence halls); and receipt from N.D. Department of Public Instruction of a $300,000 grant to support the Great Plains STEM (science, technology, engineering & mathematics) Education Center.

STEM Center, laptop resources

A primary service of the Great Plains STEM Education Center at VCSU is to provide current teachers with continuing education in successful methods for imparting  STEM subjects. One service from the center entails current K-12 teachers, from eight school districts in the VCSU vicinity, visiting there for brief sessions during the school year, and longer ones during summer.

Mason says strengthening educational achievement in the STEM subjects is important, but the STEM approach is being adapted to other disciplines and education across the university.

“STEM is thought of as teaching science, technology, engineering and math, but STEM is really about inquiry. It’s about hands-on teaching and getting students excited about learning,” she says. Mason adds that this inquiry approach is being adapted successfully to fine arts education.

At VCSU, founded as a “normal school” – the 19th century label applied to teacher education colleges – equipping future teachers and other students with modern technology resources is a priority.

VCSU was the first college in North Dakota – and the second in the nation – to issue a laptop computer to every incoming student. Providing laptops to students is still a key feature of the VCSU educational experience. Each full-time VCSU student is issued either a fully programmed HP EliteBook 840 G2 or an Apple MacBook Pro laptop computer, depending on their field of study.

Computer systems, software and information technology education continues as a popular VCSU offering. The university currently has a computer systems and software engineering department. Major studies are available in computer information systems and software engineering, and a minor study area in computer science is offered.

New facilities, strong collaboration

     The spectrum of university education programs at VCSU also includes career preparation in health and physical education. These studies are getting a major boost, as VCSU and the Valley City community are nearing completion of the Valley City Health, Wellness and Physical Education Center. It will be owned and operated by the city, with substantial space and facilities leased by VCSU. From this venue, VCSU will operate its health and physical education department, which offers four major areas of study, including the increasingly popular athletic training program.

“It’s been a great opportunity for the university, city and many donors to come together to do this for Valley City and Barnes County,” Mason says.

President Mason adds that other major physical plant strides VCSU is making included the upgrade of the campus heating plant and renovation of the Vangstad Auditorium building. She indicates that other landmark, original campus buildings – still in use – have been receiving foundation  and structural strengthening.

In her brief tenure, Mason has been impressed with the collaborative spirit and cooperative practices employed by multiple colleges and universities in the state. As an example, she points to the offering of Dakota College-Bottineau two-year programs in health care and education from the VCSU campus.

Mason is also enthused about participating in the study of key higher education issue areas along with other college presidents. North Dakota University System Chancellor Dr. Mark Hagerott has established six issue areas for the presidents to examine: administrative costs, governance, mission, retention, shared services, and tuition and fees.

“We are not just sharing what each of us will do,” Mason says. “We are thinking collectively about the state of education, and our efficiencies and effectiveness for our students and campuses.”

Community Service

Finally, Mason says that community service is a key core value for VCSU. Even on the day she was installed as president, community service was a priority.

“We made it a day of giving back to the community,” Mason says. She said VCSU folks painted fire hydrants, did meals on wheels deliveries, and even had the basketball team do some yard cleanup for an elderly resident.

Mason says “Welcome Week” for students arriving in the fall has a comparable community service component. Students returning in the fall of 2015 tied more than 170 blankets and packed 170 food bags for the Barnes County Backpack Program. Freshmen participate in an annual squash harvest from local growers, and the harvest is donated to local food banks.

“Being a ‘Difference Maker’ is a current theme for us,” Mason says. “We’re here to make a difference in the lives of students and also to empower them to make a difference in the lives of others.” n

Kent Brick is editor of North Dakota Living. He can be reached at