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Northern: A Great Place To Start

In all his years at Northern, Chancellor Greg Kegel has never been more optimistic about the campus and its future.

Kegel is an institution at his campus, Montana State University-Northern. He’s been there 48 years. He started as a student, kept his loyalties to Northern when he was a teacher at Havre High School for six years, and then came back to Northern as a teacher and administrator and eventually as chancellor.

As he sat at the desk in his Cowan Hall office last week during an interview with the Herald, Kegel  reflected on the current state of affairs at Northern.

In his sixth year as chancellor, Kegel is just getting comfortable with Montana’s educational bureaucracy — the higher education commissioner’s office, the MSU bureaucracy and the state Legislature.

In the six years prior to his appointment, there was a revolving door of chancellors and acting chancellors. There was no stability in the campus leadership, he said, and that hurt Northern.

Now, several major projects are underway, will soon start or have recently been completed that will add to the college experience for Northern students, he said. 

Among them:

Kegel discusses plans for the proposed Northern football field. (Teresa Getten, Herald photo)

Football Field 

The proposed $2 million football field to house Lights home games has about 90 percent of the needed funds committed, he said. He hopes to get the rest soon and make a formal announcement. 

Kegel hopes to have the field ready for the 2020 football season. His office window overlooks the area that will someday be the field.

A fine-looking football field will add to the spirit on campus and in the Havre community, he said. Having the field on campus will mean a lot to the student body, much more than renting Havre High School’s Blue Pony Stadium, he believes. 

The new field will only be part of the reason for the success of the football program. 

“We are going to start winning football games,” he said with a sense of determination. Northern has suffered through several seasons with dismal records.

“Right now, I have the best football coach anywhere,” Kegel said of Andrew Rollin.

Phase 2 will include construction of a community center building at the field location, where meetings, gatherings and social affairs such as wedding receptions can be held.

Rodeo Pavilion

Rodeo is a major sport on the Hi-Line and a favorite of many students, he said. The program has done well in recent years.

The pavilion will attract audiences and convince more students to pick Northern as their college of choice, Kegel predicted.

It is modeled after a similar pavilion at Miles City Community College. Kegel would like to see the Havre pavilion built at a location behind the old Kmart-soon-to-be North 40 Outfitters building on Highway 2.   

But it carries a $2 million price tag. After the football field money is raised, the rodeo center will be at the top of his agenda.

Donaldson Hall

The chancellor said he has something in the works to make massive repairs to landmark Donaldson Hall, which has fallen into disrepair in recent years. 

He hopes to be able to make an announcement soon.

For years, alums have been pushing for restoration of the building, once the center of campus. 

Hockey Team

Hockey is also a popular sport on the Hi-Line and in Montana, Kegel said. The newly formed team will be another activity that attracts prospective students. The recent addition to the sports lineup will be another attraction that will keep students involved in campus life, especially on weekends.

As in most projects, he said, the Havre community has been tremendous in its support of the hockey team.

The Lights hockey team will use the Havre Ice Dome for home games.

“They have welcomed us with open arms.” 

The Classroom And The ‘College Experience’

Kegel said he knows Northern, to be successful, will have to offer both first-class educational opportunities and a top-notch “college experience.”

The college is working on both.

The college cannot be beat when it comes to its various technical programs, he said.

Employers from all over the nation are lined up at career fairs to hire Northern graduates, he said. Grads are placed in top-level positions that often offer salaries as high as $100,000. The placement rate for Northern grads is 100 percent. Some grads walk away with several job offers, he said, adding that even some summer internships pay as much as $30 an hour. 

Kegel sees Northern’s reputation spreading.

Employers know when they get a Northern grad, they get someone who is well-trained in a variety of subjects.

But Northern is maintaining its commitment to the nursing and education programs, he said, because the community needs them so badly.

Many people believe that if students attend Northern for teaching or nursing programs, they will stay in the area to teach in area schools. Some regional schools have such a hard time recruiting teachers, they have started the school year with classes that have no permanent teachers.

But he said Montana and the rest of the country will have to answer some serious questions about the educational system.

One reason it’s hard to attract teachers to rural schools, he said, is that so few people want to take up teaching classes when they are college freshmen.

A student may graduate from Northern and be offered a $28,000 salary as a starting teacher while his friend or roommate may get $100,000 in one of the technical fields.

It will be hard to convince students they should become teachers with that kind of salary difference, he said.

Alumni Return

Often, alumni return to campus from years past, Kegel said.

Just last week, a 1992 graduate came back to check out Northern of today. He is superintendent of the BNSF Railways division in Topeka, Kansas, where he supervises 650 employees.

He spoke to students about the value of classes they attend and the “soft skills.” Avoid the DUI arrests, the minor scrapes with the law that can have a major impact on your career, he told students.

Get Students To Northern And Keep Them Here

A major problem for Northern and most colleges in the country is retention of students once they get to Havre.

A big focus of the Montana University System is to retain students as well as attract them.

Kegel praised his staff for the work they are doing to keep students on track. Throughout the campus, people are on the lookout for “red flags,” students who are showing signs of dropping out, be it for financial concerns, family matters or academic problems.

A Care Team has been established to provide students with help to get them through whatever crisis they may be passing through. It already has had successes. 

Showing Off The Campus

Kegel beams as he shows off the campus and the changes — big and small — that have taken place over the years.

One of the changes, he said, was started by his wife: weeding the flower beds around campus.

More flowers are planted around the campus. The flower gardens are kept spotless, and the trash is picked up along the walkways. They discovered a funny thing as they launched the campus cleanup program. The more they picked up trash, the less trash they had to pick up,

Students, faculty and visitors are less likely to carelessly toss wrappers and paper around the spotless campus.

The culture is important, he said, and the culture at Northern is to have pride in the campus. 

As repairs are being made throughout the campus, buildings will be painted or at least trimmed in maroon and gold, the school colors, bringing a sense of unity.

Dorm Improvements

Kegel has gotten compliments on how good the new dorms look.

But they are not new. The dorms were redone, inside and out.

All were repainted, and there are new beds and walls; floors were redone and walkways around the dorms have been refurbished. There is a new feel to the residence hall area, he said.

Fixing Pershing Hall

Historic Pershing Hall, named for Gen. John J.  ”Blackjack” Pershing, is the oldest standing building on campus. Havre residents hauled materials from Fort Assinniboine to the campus to build the fledgling campus, where as a junior officer Pershing once served.

It’s been years since it was spruced up, but Kegel has it on his to-do list.

If the building is better lit, redone on the inside, restored a bit on the outside and had a new cooling system installed, it could be open to a variety of new uses.

Diesel Technology Center

Kegel knows the Diesel Technology Building inside and out and from bottom to top.

“I spent 10 years of my life in this building,” he laughed.

Diesel had always been a popular program on campus. There were more applicants than open student positions. Employers were lined up for students.

But first as dean and then chancellor, he had to convince authorities in charge that a new building was needed and should be funded.

To supplement state funding, Kegel had to raise funds locally and from businesses.

But last year, it opened to students.

From the start, Kegel and the architect were at odds. The architect wanted to construct a building with a traditional auto garage feel. Kegel wanted it modeled after a Hilton Hotel.

The diesel technologists of the future would not be a group of “grease monkeys,” he said, but professionals who knew as much about computers as engines.

In the front lobby, there are well-upholstered leather chairs finer than you would see in a doctor’s office. There is a floor-to-ceiling window that lets light in, but can be used as an overhead door to bring in tractors for students to observe.

Throughout the building, there are rooms as organized as the offices in Cowan Hall. Each is organized and well-lit. Each has large windows overseeing the beautiful campus.

If there is one problem, it’s that there are not enough students. Employers are in line for the graduates of the program, he said.

Kegel wanted the storage closet in the Diesel Technology Center to resemble more that of a hotel than a mechanic shop. (Teresa Getten, Herald photo)

Little River Institute

The main floor of the Student Union Building, known as the SUB, has undergone changes to make it more appealing to students. 

But a largely unused portion of the second floor is now being converted into a headquarters for the Little River Institute, the group serving Native students.

The Native student population plays a critical role in Northern’s future. About 20 percent of Northern’s student population is from Havre, and the campus is on the Hi-Line, with four reservations nearby.

The new areas will have smudge rooms for Native rituals, meeting rooms for Natives to gather for support.

An unused portion of the second floor is now being converted into a headquarters for the Little River Institute, the group serving Native students. (Teresa Getten, Herald photo)

Northern Knows What It Is

Kegel is sure of Northern’s success, in part because the campus seems to agree on where it should be headed. 

He quoted Montana University System Commissioner Clayton Christian as saying, “Northern knows what it is.”

Northern will never be like campuses in Bozeman or Missoula, Kegel said. People won’t be Cats or Griz, they will be Lights.

People looking for education or nursing programs will find a smaller, more intimate campus with smaller classes.

And no campus will be able to offer the first-class programs in the technical fields that Northern presents, he said.

The natural base for Northern students is growing smaller.

Montanans are not having children as they once did. And that is especially true on the Hi-Line.

The number of graduates at Havre High School has been cut in half during the time he’s been here, Kegel said. Other schools have merged time and again as farms grow larger and families grow smaller.

But enrollment for the year is on track to be at the same level as last year, something most schools in this era of declining enrollment would be proud of, he said.

Northern has been named by a Harvard University study as the No. 1 campus in the state for upward mobility; in fact, No. 1 in the region.

For people who want to get ahead in life, Northern is a great place to start, Kegel said.

Email John Kelleher at john@havreherald.com

photos by Teresa Getten, The Havre Herald
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