When Valley City State University (VCSU) began operating 125 years ago on October 13, 1890, it was without any state funds or even ownership of a building. Known at that time as the “State Normal School,” the institution was tasked with educating teachers and opened less than a year after North Dakota became a state.
According to Cornerstones, a book published by VCSU in celebration of its centennial, Valley City was described by the local Valley City Times in 1881 as, “the most picturesque town along the line of the Northern Pacific Railroad in Dakota… it is a growing business town. It now has two well-stocked lumber yards, several handsome general stores, a bank, two hardware stores, two livery and sale stables, two blacksmith shops, a drug store, harness shop, paint shop, jewelry store, furniture store, a capacious elevator, a flouring mill with four run of stone, three doctors, several lawyers and other professional men, two land offices, two saloons, a meat market and several dealers in farm machinery.” The year the school opened, the local Times-Record reported that Valley City had “all that goes to make up a western metropolis.”
The Times-Record reported before the school’s opening that “its object is to give instruction in the Science and Art of Teaching to prepare teachers for the efficient discharge of their duties in the Public Schools of the State. The studies will be those required for the different grades of Public School Teachers’ Certificates. Special Classes, however, will be formed in Latin, French, Bookkeeping, [etc.] Instructions in all branches FREE.” According to the Times-Record, the students were responsible only for paying room and board, which could be found in the city from $3 to $3.50 per week.
When the school opened in 1890, it had 22 students and met in the high school. According to Greg Vanney, director of marketing and communications at VCSU, the state had approved Valley City as the site for the Normal School, but did not provide any funding or land. “The townspeople raised the money to open the campus, secured a person to lead the campus and provided the facilities,” he says. The school met in several locations until 1892, when land was purchased to build the first building, Main, still a part of VCSU and now known as McFarland Hall. During the early years, students attended the school for one to two years and practiced teaching kindergarten through high school at the on-campus Model School.
It wasn’t until 1921 that the school changed its name to Valley City State Teachers College and began awarding an accredited bachelor of arts degree in education. In 1963, the school became Valley City State College, representing the expansion of programs to accommodate students in fields other than teaching. The school adopted its current moniker in 1987 after a brief period of time in the mid-80s when it was known as State University of North Dakota – Valley City.
During World War II, the school was selected to take part in the V-12 program, the objective of which the school newspaper said was to “assure the Navy of an uninterrupted flow of professionally trained men.” Students were also involved in supporting the war effort from home. The Tawacin quoted College President Eugene Kleinpell in 1943 as saying, “Our country is at war, and it needs our help. An urgent cry of need comes from North Dakota farmers, gallant soldiers in the battle of production. It is now late October, and their crops still lie in the field unharvested. The young men of [the college] are needed in the harvest fields, for we must have ‘food for freedom!’”
In 1996, VCSU became the second “laptop campus” in the United States. Each full-time student is now issued a laptop with the option to return or rent the laptop during the summer. Brand-new laptops are issued every two years. According to Vanney, the laptops highlight the importance of technology on campus, which he considers to be one of the hallmarks of VCSU. The campus also offers many online classes and degrees, and in 2005, began to issue online master’s degrees in education. “VCSU still has the ‘Normal School’ heritage of producing teachers,” says Vanney. “The program is designed so teachers who are currently teaching can take the master’s program online and do the work on evenings and weekends.”
The oil boom has had its effects as far east as Valley City, where Vanney has noticed increased enrollment as well as difficulty filling hourly positions in the region. The school unveiled its new environmental science major this fall in response to the increased need for these type of trained professionals in the state.
Vanney says the small-town feel of Valley City carries over to VCSU, where professors, students and staff know everyone by name. He says the school’s location, 45 minutes from Fargo, provides students with a safe haven while also allowing them easy access to North Dakota’s largest city.
Looking to the Future
VCSU may be listed in the National Register of Historic Places, but the campus is also working to create new, high-tech facilities. Rhoades Science Center, built in 1973, underwent a $10.3 million expansion in 2013, turning it into the state-of-the-art hub of the school’s science programs. The building is now Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified, a designation earned for environmental performance and sustainable design.
In 2009, extreme flooding caused the city to develop a permanent flood protection plan, which has limited off-campus housing, causing an influx of students living on campus. Due to its proximity to the river, VCSU’s music building, Foss Hall, will be cut off from the rest of the campus as part of the flood protection plan. The North Dakota Legislature approved funding for a new communications and fine arts facility to replace it, although funding is dependent on North Dakota’s general fund revenues. “If approved, the facility will be a beautiful, new building to house communication and fine arts programs,” says Vanney.
Currently, the Valley City Parks and Recreation District, the Sheyenne Valley Community Foundation and VCSU are collaborating to build a new wellness center to open next fall, which Vanney says will provide more labs, classrooms and office space for athletic training and exercise science programs at VCSU, as well as a state-of-the-art facility for students and community members to enjoy.
Celebrating the Past
VCSU kicked off its 125th anniversary celebration in the fall of 2014 during the school’s homecoming events. It unveiled a new Viking mascot costume and began to use a special 125th anniversary logo. Staff has begun to collect memorabilia of the school’s long history for display on campus and to develop an updated book of the school’s history to commemorate the event. The celebration ended this year during homecoming when the new president, Tisa Mason, was inaugurated on October 1. “There is a lot of excitement with the new president. We are looking at where we want Valley City to go in the future. We want to grow and we have capacity to grow, but we will work to decide in which direction we would like to go, both geographically and in subject areas,” says Vanney.
“It is a busy time, we have a new president. We are like North Dakota, we keep moving and we work hard, but we often don’t take the time to celebrate,” he says. “We want people to remember that we have a long history, and we are proud of it.”