Dr. Douglas Jensen officially became president of Bismarck State College on July 1, 2020, but he’d already been on campus two weeks prior, working with former President Larry C. Skogen to ensure a smooth transition and to learn all he could about the college he’ll be leading into its expanded mission as North Dakota’s only polytechnic. To take up the reins of BSC at a pivotal point in its history is challenging enough, then layer a pandemic onto that and you see what a person is made of.
We can rest easy because Jensen is made of tough stuff. He grew up in a blue-collar Pittsburgh neighborhood. His father died when he was 12 and he lost his mother when he was 20. He wasn’t your traditional student. “I didn’t see the value of school. I didn’t see how it could help me,” he says. No one he was close to had attended college. He expected to follow his father into the steel mill and retire after 40 years. Instead, the summer after he graduated, one of his high school teachers, Miss Fletcher, told him in no uncertain terms that he needed to attend the local community college where she worked in the summers. He enrolled at Community College of Allegheny County, and “the trajectory of my life changed.”
For more information about Dr. Jensen's education and experience, visit his Background page.
Almost since the day you were hired, you’ve been engaged with BSC – attending meetings even as you wrapped up your presidency at Rock Valley College. Talk about your approach to work.
My commitment to higher ed is more personal than professional. Education transformed my life, specifically a community college experience transformed my life. Relationships made through community college changed my life. This is a lifestyle more than a vocation or profession for me, and I’m blessed to have had a profession that is so integral to my values and beliefs. If we do our job well, we touch about 12,000 people throughout credit and non-credit classes and events every year. Very few occupations allow you to engage in that many lives. And that’s not counting all the people our students touch. When we educate a nurse, think of all the people that person will serve in the community. The impact of what we do is incredibly humbling.
Why did you pursue this role? Why BSC?
I wasn’t looking for a change at this point in my career. In fact, I was happy where I was when a friend shared the posting with me. I have always been very interested in polytechnics, and I have deep experience in the public/private partnerships needed to build one. It was exactly the role I’d set my mind to finding eventually. It felt like a fit then and feels that way now, too.
What about this community and North Dakota appeals to you?
I like the openness of this part of country. When I left the east coast and went to Green Bay, Wis., the lifestyle and culture appealed to me. I saw similar opportunities and values in Bismarck, and felt it would be a good fit, a natural fit.
What are your priorities as a college president?
It comes down to students. Because of my background and how I grew up, attending a community college shaped me as a person and as a leader. You’ll hear me say frequently that a community college is somewhere you go where people believe in you before you’re capable of believing in yourself.
Education is a great equalizer. With the right education you can navigate economic downturns and be ready for job opportunities you may not have had access to otherwise. It is an investment in yourself that no one can take away.
What have you observed to date about the people of BSC?
I see a very dedicated and committed college community. I hear people talk about the history of BSC, and quickly realized that this community is proud of BSC, too. Many families have connections here – either they earned degrees, attended continuing ed classes or their family members attended BSC. All those connections are why the operative word in “community college” is the word community. BSC is this community’s college. Bismarck-Mandan owns it, built it and nurtures it and with that comes a sense of pride. The community has invested in BSC, and we have the care and custody of their investment.
What has surprised you so far?
I’d say that the more things change the more they stay the same. The challenges we are facing here, are not different than those faced elsewhere. Opportunities are similar, too. I’ve traveled around the country and I see a lot of commonality and a lot of hopes and aspirations placed on institutions like BSC to meet the needs of the community. We are well positioned to provide that.
Tell us about your family.
I’m blessed with a great partner in life, my wife Karen. We’ve been married 38 years, and we’ve been together since high school. She saw my future, understood what I was about and committed to taking that journey with me. She made professional sacrifices and dedicated her life to providing for our family. I never take for granted what it means to have a life partner willing to move all over and who is as committed as I am to serving students and the people of our community.
We have two grown sons living in Pittsburgh and Rockford, Ill. Both of whom attended community colleges.
Was there a teacher that influenced you?
The person who really changed my focus, was Dr. Barbara Felen at Community College of Allegheny County. I was told to take a biology class and I had a preconceived idea that sciences weren’t for me. Dr. Felen said, ‘take my class and I will help you make it through.’ She didn’t just get me through, she opened my eyes and inspired me. She made me believe in myself, gave me confidence by teaching me how to learn. I became a biology and chemistry tutor. I knew what it felt like to be on the other side of the table, I knew that if I could help those students the way others helped me, they could help themselves. I changed my major and graduated with honors. We are friends to this day.
What motivates you?
I’ve experienced some of the more difficult sides of life. Being in a position to help people through tough times is important to me. I know that there is hope and better quality of life out there – to help people find that is rewarding. I believe in the law of reciprocity – if we put the well-being of others at the forefront of what we do, it will come back to us. Positive creates positive.
What value does a community college bring to its community that’s different than a university?
Our value is in the population we serve. A community college represents the community and more fully reflects the community’s diversity. We serve people aged 9 to 90. We are involved with K-12 students, and adults who are returning to education to change their lives. The average community college student is 25 and female. She might be a single mom looking for a better quality of life for her family, and she is at the forefront for us.
Wdo you like about college students?
They’re open to new things. They’re searching, exploring and, chances are, they’ll make multiple career decisions before they settle in. We can help them find what they need and get to where they’re going.
What keeps you up at night?
A few things concern me a lot. The massive amount of debt students and families take on for higher education is one. How much society relies on higher ed to address its needs, without providing the funding and commitment necessary to support those institutions. Funding models are developed to maintain the status quo and it’s a struggle for community colleges to position ourselves to meet the needs of the community. I’m concerned about the emotional and mental health of college students – they struggle and experience a lot of challenges. We need to do more to support them and find the services they need.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I really enjoy the openness of this part of country, and the opportunity to enjoy outdoor activities. I like cars, listening to live music and getting out with our dog, Oliver. I’m focused on enjoying life and the simpler things that make lasting memories of family and friends.
What are your favorite teams?
The Pittsburgh Steelers of course; and the Penguins. I follow collegiate wrestling – especially Penn State. And I’m really looking forward to following and cheering on the Mystics.
What's one thing we'll never see you do?
I hope you’ll never see me compromise my values or principles for any reason. Faith is important to me.
What do you want this community to know about BSC?
That we are this community’s college. And that depending on where you are in life, the college has services and educational opportunities for you – for your family, children and friends. BSC is here to meet your needs whether you want to take continuing education classes or get a two or four-year degree. And the community needs to understand that in becoming a polytechnic institution with an expanded mission, they are going to have an asset in this community that is unique to this region.
What do you want the community to know about you?
I enjoy people. I like to have fun. Karen and I are looking forward to building relationships here. We don’t know a lot about North Dakota yet, but we are looking forward to learning. And please, call me Doug.