Dr. Walter J. Swensen (1939-1948)
Bismarck Junior College’s first leader, Dean Walter J. Swensen, is described by alumnus Myron Atkinson, ’47, as a “scholarly individual” and remembered as a “nuts and bolts guy” who quietly inspired students.
A professor of economics, psychology and history (among other subjects), Swensen was not an outgoing person, but was an inspiring instructor, “so much so that I made up my mind to be an economics professor,” Atkinson said. “[I]n a one-on-one situation he could really get to you and raise your hopes. And, it was a time in my life where I needed a little bit of that. That was his nature,” he continued.
Swensen earned his bachelor’s degree from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and his master’s and doctorate from the University of North Dakota. Recognized nationally for his work in education and psychology, personal papers donated by his family in 2010 illustrate his studiousness and his dedication to his role.
The bound book – part record, part personal journal – includes minutes of early BJC board meetings, lists of faculty and students, class schedules, events, photographs, programs, news clippings, cards of congratulations from the governor and officials of the time, and a 1944-45 college catalog.
The papers depict a very different time and a more intimately connected faculty, noting not only the addresses and educational background of the early faculty, but also their marital status and the church they attended.
Swensen saw the college through early, very limited budgets and rapid enrollment growth with 107 students in the first class and 216 in the fall of 1947.
Swensen left BJC in 1948 to become the state director of mental hygiene, a division of the North Dakota Department of Health. He died January 15, 1956 at the age of 59. He is remembered at BSC today in the women’s residence hall, Swensen Hall, and through a perpetual scholarship established in his honor in 1986.
Sidney J. Lee (1948-1961)
Remembered for his approachability and support for the arts, Dean Sidney J. Lee led the college from 1948 to 1961. During his tenure, the college moved from the third floor of Bismarck High School to its own building near the Capitol in 1955, and then to the present location in 1961. Like Dean Swensen before him, he faced funding challenges.
“He had enthusiasm, but had the same problem as Dean Swensen. You didn’t get much money from the Bismarck School Board to run Bismarck Junior College,” said Myron Atkinson, ’47.
With a tuition-only funding model, Lee was innovative in his funding efforts. One year, he organized a Christmas tree sale in order to make payroll.
“He was ferocious,” former president Kermit Lidstrom said. “You couldn’t turn him down. I’m sure there were times the college would have disappeared without his energy and focus.”
Retired BSC librarian Lois Engler appreciated Lee’s ability to raise funds, but not all of the choices he made for using the funds – particularly when it came to library acquisitions. “He would use some of my money to buy some esoteric thing like a book on English gardens. Well, we didn’t need a book on English gardens.”
His choices might not have been universally embraced, but they were both bold and lasting. It was Lee’s idea to establish a bagpipe band even though the band director at the time, Clarion Larson, didn’t know how to play the pipes. The band garnered national attention for BJC during its 20-year run.
Lee also established the music department and the Young Artist Series designed to bring promising young musical talent to Bismarck. The Sidney J. Lee Auditorium was dedicated in 1962 during an intermission of a Young Artist Series concert. The guest performer was the Lees’ daughter-in-law, pianist Patricia Taylor.
Alumnus Ev Miller’s first wife, Laura, worked for the dean, whom he remembers as a “wonderful man.” Miller said Lee was particularly supportive when he and his wife adopted their first child. “His only son was adopted and so he was enthusiastic about it. He wrote letters and made phone calls for Laura and me. The day we picked up our oldest daughter, that day we heard on the radio that he’d died of a massive heart attack.”
Lee earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Valley City State College in 1929, and a master’s degree in 1934 from the University of Washington, Seattle. He did further graduate study at Harvard and taught high school in Williston and Bismarck. Lee died on August 28, 1961, at the age of 56.
In addition to the Sidney J. Lee Auditorium, a BSC Foundation scholarship was established in his honor in 1962.
Ralph Werner (1961-1977)
Ralph Werner, third dean and first president of BSC, began his career at Velva High School in 1937. Hired by the Bismarck Public Schools in 1941, he taught business classes at the high school and college level, joining the U.S. Air Force in 1943. He became registrar in 1946 and continued teaching. In 1948, he was named business manager, assistant to the dean in 1958, acting dean in 1961, and dean the following year. The title was changed to president in 1967.
Extraordinarily well liked, Werner grew the college in budget, buildings and students. He successfully lobbied the state Legislature for funding and succeeded in landing a 10-mill levy from the city to support the college. Increasing the budget through state and city contributions substantially expanded BJC. During his tenure, BJC grew from one to six buildings and increased by more than 1,500 students.
Noted for his sense of humor, those who knew him also appreciated his warmth. Former librarian, Lois Engler, called him a humanitarian.
“Ralph Werner, without a doubt, was my very favorite. He was so good to everybody and, with his sense of humor, if there was a problem he was always able to get it straightened out.”
He was active in the community college movement nationally but always focused on the campus and individuals. Longtime BSC employee, Linda Fossum, remembers he was always ready with advice or a funny comment. “He told me once ‘if you’re walking in the hallway, at least have a pencil in your hand. People will think you’re working.’”
“I don’t think anyone has been more loved than he was - just a wonderful fellow; well-liked by everybody,” Carolyn Twingley, ’68, said.
Werner retired in 1977 after 36 years with BSC. In 1979, he received the BSC Distinguished Service Citation. The citation reads, “During his 16-year tenure as president of the college, Ralph Werner guided the institution to a position of stability and prominence among North Dakota’s Colleges.”
The Bismarck State College Foundation established a scholarship in his honor in 1979, and Werner Hall was named for him in 1989. Werner died March 15, 2009, at the age of 97.
Dr. Kermit Lidstrom (1977-1995)
A Mandan native, Dr. Kermit Lidstrom became president of BSC in 1977 and served in the role for 18 years. Described as a “difference maker,” Lidstrom is credited for improving the college in a variety of ways.
Lidstrom had a career in marketing before moving into higher education. In 1976, he received a doctorate in education from Nova University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and was named BJC president the next year.
“Kermit had the advantage of being an outsider. He came with a fresh view and … new ideas. [It was] good for the college to have that,” alumnus Myron Atkinson, ’47, said.
That fresh view and his natural momentum made those first years a little rocky according to Lidstrom. “In retrospect, I should have moved a little slower,” he said.
But, once Lidstrom’s presidency hit its stride, he made a substantial mark on the campus and beyond thanks to his community viewpoint. “His focus was on making BSC the best possible BSC it could be right here in Bismarck. He was a president who perfected things,” said Drake Carter, provost and vice president of academic affairs.
Lidstrom reorganized the BSC National Alumni Association, expanded the Division of Community Services, and developed a campus day-care center. He also established the Bismarck State College Foundation, an organization that began with $69,000 and reached $10 million in distributed foundation dollars in 2012.
The Foundation has supported students, employees and growth through its endowed funds, scholarships and grants. “Without the Foundation and Kermit germinating that initial seed, [BSC] wouldn’t be where we are today,” said sixth BSC President Larry C. Skogen.
Campus beautification was a priority of Lidstrom’s as well. During his tenure, hundreds of trees and flowers were planted on campus, enhancing the natural beauty of the college’s setting overlooking the Missouri River. He also was vital in getting legislative and community support for the Jack Science Center.
Lidstrom’s ongoing generosity to the Foundation and presence at BSC academic and athletic events provides a historic continuity appreciated by President Skogen. “I enjoy him. He’s so supportive of campus, [and I] love talking to him … he’s our biggest cheerleader,” Skogen said.
The Foundation established a perpetual scholarship in Lidstrom’s honor in 1995, and Lidstrom Hall, the co-ed residence named for him, was completed in 2008.
Dr. Donna Thigpen (1995-2006)
Her “backbone of steel” and entrepreneurial spirit ensured that BSC grew in leaps and bounds during Dr. Donna Thigpen’s years as president. Thigpen excelled at creating partnerships with business and industry and collaborations with other colleges. Under her leadership, 14 baccalaureate programs became available through distance learning on the BSC campus and more than 20 new programs were added to BSC’s transfer and technical offerings. As a result, enrollment swelled between 1995 and 2006, increasing 53 percent.
According to provost Drake Carter, Thigpen was a “ball of fire.”
“[She] was a real change agent. Her interest was in driving BSC forward – not only to be the best we can be in Bismarck-Mandan, but any place in the country [or] around the world.”
As a key player in implementing the state workforce training model, Thigpen was instrumental in the creation of industry driven programming, particularly related to the energy industry. Her leadership in this area resulted in establishment of the National Energy Center of Excellence and success of the $18.3 million capital campaign to build it. BSC has since become a national leader in online and on-campus education for the energy industry.
“What Donna brought to this college was a view of creating programs in response to community, business and industry,” said sixth BSC president Larry C. Skogen. “[Because of] the culture she created in developing programs, people are used to developing new programs.”
In addition, she led development of the Dakota Nursing Program, a collaboration of North Dakota’s four community colleges, whose combined resources offer much-needed statewide nursing education and training.
Thigpen embraced and leveraged technology, equipping all faculty members with laptop computers and encouraging use of technology in teaching. She also became the driving force for enhancing student services to increase retention.
Upon her retirement, then University Chancellor Robert Potts said, “Her tenure has been an unqualified success.”
Thigpen received the Distinguished Service Award at BSC’s 72nd Commencement Ceremony in 2012 for guiding BSC from a traditional campus to a forward-thinking institution that offers on-campus and state-of-the-art online education.
Dr. Larry C. Skogen (2006-2020)
Dr. Larry C. Skogen retired on June 30, 2020, after serving BSC as president for 13 years. He holds an undergraduate degree from Dickinson State University, a Master’s in History from University of Central Missouri, Warrensburg, and a Ph.D. in History from Arizona State University, Tempe. A native of Hettinger, N.D., Skogen held a strong career in the U.S. Air Force before returning to North Dakota in 2007.
Skogen led BSC through a period of massive growth and change. During his tenure, the college completed 16 major building projects, including the addition of the Mandan Mechanical Maintenance Campus, the National Energy Center of Excellence, the BPS Career Academy, and the new Health Sciences Building.
When he first came to BSC, Skogan said that people were still calling it “the high school on the hill.”
Under his leadership, the college grew both in campus size and enrollment. Skogen is proud to have put BSC on the map. In 2013, enrollment passed 4,000 for the first time. BSC has remained the third largest college in the North Dakota University System.
From day one, his energy and ideas inspired the campus. He showed up in classrooms and faculty meetings, talked to students between classes, and regularly attended the concerts, games and events that are the fabric of BSC. He was always thinking and always looking forward.
Whether in a speech to the energy industry, a casual conversation with a parent or in one of his frequent blog entries, Skogen worked to paint a vivid picture of BSC’s current achievements and the unlimited potential he saw.
In 2018, BSC announced that it would become North Dakota’s first polytechnic institution. Skogen and his leadership team believed that offering four-year Bachelor of Science degrees in technical fields, in addition to maintaining the college’s certificate, diploma, and associate degree offerings would strengthen educational opportunities in North Dakota. Still, Skogen continued to emphasize the “spirit of accessibility and affordability that has benefitted students since 1939.”
Skogen was named president emeritus upon his retirement through a unanimous vote of the State Board of Higher Education. He identifies himself primarily as a historian, and he plans to pursue historical scholarship projects during his retirement.
Dr. Douglas Jensen (2020-present)
In the midst of the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Doug Jensen stepped into the presidential role at BSC on June 1, 2020.
Jensen had served Rock Valley College (RVC) in Rockford, Illinois, as president since 2016. Before arriving at RVC, Dr. Jensen was president of the Alabama Technology Network (ATN) in the Alabama Community College System. Jensen received a Doctorate of Education from Edgewood College in Madison, Wis.
Jensen is looking forward to expanding BSC’s polytechnic mission, maintaining enrollment numbers and connecting with the community.