A River Runs Alongside It

A rising river. At Valley City State U., a young new president moves classes from campus to online in the face of floods.
April 17, 2009

This is Steven W. Shirley's first year as Valley City State University president; he’s 36. “Although I felt a lot older after some of the sand bagging I was doing over the last few days.”

It’s a first year with an unusual end. Valley City on Wednesday announced it would move all instruction online for the remainder of the semester, as the Sheyenne River rose to record levels and officials called for an evacuation of the city’s flood plain (where much of the university is located). According to Mayor Mary Lee Nielson's statement, the river's elevation had never before exceeded 20 feet; a crest at 22 feet or higher is expected and, "additionally, the Corps of Engineers also predicts that we will likely remain at this elevated level for up to two weeks, adding additional strain to our dike system."

Photo: U.S. Geological Survey

Webcam shot of Sheyenne River, April 16

“There are simply too many unknowns at this time, and with a two-week expected evacuation we do not have the ability to expect students back on campus. It has been agreed that we will continue with classes and finish the semester in whatever manner possible utilizing technology,” Shirley wrote in a Wednesday message to Valley City State's 1,000 students. Classes are to resume next week and Shirley urged faculty "to be as flexible and creative as possible,” adding: “We all realize there will be decisions that need to be made on a class-by-class basis, and recognize some classes are more suited to online delivery than others.”

Given the timing, “this is really an alternative that makes the most sense,” Shirley said in an interview. “The fact is, we’re a technology-enhanced campus and a laptop campus [in that every student is issued a laptop]. There’s a chance for us to shine in this. It’s what our faculty are trained and equipped to do.”

Valley City State itself, meanwhile, remains “dry and safe.” The river runs along the north side of campus, and more than half its buildings sit in the flood plain. “We haven’t taken on a drop of water yet but what’s

Photo: Valley City State University

Steven W. Shirley

gone on is there are massive contingency dikes that have been built, huge, huge temporary dikes basically encircling the campus. So we’re basically down to one very narrow-laned road to get into the campus. We’ve had truck after truck of heavy clay and mud that we’ve hauled in to make these levees and dikes. It’s taken a tremendous toll on the roads, the infrastructure," Shirley said.

“Everything’s really in a state of disarray."

Campus offices are to reopen Monday, “recognizing obviously there are certain personnel who have been evacuated,” Shirley said.

“Obviously it’s a very busy time in the academic year."

Shirley came to Valley City State July 1 from Dakota State University in South Dakota, where he was vice president and dean of student affairs. His inauguration as president was originally postponed from its original date, April 3. “That was a day we canceled classes and our students were out sandbagging,” said Shirley, a North Dakota native.

It'll probably be postponed again, until fall. “We’ll probably change the theme to sandbags and pumps, I don’t know.”


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