Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | St. Cloud State University | Wikimedia Commons
After six years on the job, multiple rounds of layoffs, and a clash with faculty over plans to launch online programs, St. Cloud State University president Robbyn Wacker is on the way out.
Wacker announced she will step down on June 30, when her contract expires.
The move had been rumored for weeks, with sources suggesting to Inside Higher Ed that Wacker had fallen out of favor with Minnesota State College and Universities system leaders over a contract with an online program manager to offer expedited online degrees, which faculty sharply opposed.
Those tensions—set against a backdrop of enrollment challenges, systemwide budget cuts and layoffs—have played out in a public clash between frustrated faculty members, who have led a “Save St. Cloud” campaign, and university administrators, who have launched their own “Stand With St. Cloud” initiative to combat criticism and make the case for online expansion.
Enrollment Drops, Budget Woes, Job Cuts
Since Wacker joined St. Cloud State in 2018, her tenure has been marked by job cuts.
The first round came in 2019, when the university laid off eight tenured faculty members, citing budget challenges. Then, amid ongoing enrollment struggles, SCSU announced much deeper cuts earlier this year. In April, St. Cloud officials said that six programs and 37 jobs would be cut. But by May, administrators, citing an $18 million budget deficit for the fall, determined that 100 faculty jobs and 70 programs would need to be eliminated over five years to help ease the college’s financial woes.
St. Cloud State’s steady enrollment declines precede Wacker’s time as president. Though enrollment increased slightly this fall, the university has been steadily losing students for more than a decade. In fall 2010, SCSU enrolled more than 18,600 students, according to figures from the Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System; this fall, the university reported enrollment of 10,134 students.
While that number has been sliding for years, St. Cloud State’s head count has not recovered from significant losses during the COVID-19 pandemic, which triggered enrollment drops nationwide. In fall 2019, the last semester before the pandemic, SCSU enrolled a reported 13,049 students.
Plans to launch expedited online programs with Academic Partnerships, an academic program enablement company, has stirred controversy at St. Cloud State and led to a clash of visions over the direction of the university.
Critics argue that the agreement with Academic Partnerships is flawed because it takes curriculum design out of faculty hands and gives the OPM 50 percent of tuition revenue in associated online classes. They have also questioned the need for expedited online programs, which the university hopes will better serve students with some college credits but no degree by offering seven-week virtual classes.
Opposition to the online push led to the rise of the Save St. Cloud State campaign. The effort, backed by the Inter Faculty Organization—which represents faculty across the seven Minnesota State system universities—was described on its website as an accountability movement seeking to avert pending layoffs and program closures, “stop the expansion of predatory online programming from outside SCSU” and “change the direction and leadership” there.
“President Wacker’s decision was made with inadequate buy-in from stakeholders and disregarded the importance of SCSU faculty, students, and staff. We must hold the administration accountable,” organizers declared on their website. “We deserve a leader who acts with transparency and represents SCSU’s vision statement of positively transforming students and the communities where they live and work. We want St. Cloud State to be saved.”
Jonathan Bohn, the IFO’s director of public affairs, said the faculty campaign also sought to address concerns about a lack of shared governance in campus decision-making.
“The current president has lost the support of the vast majority of the faculty due to decisions that she’s made that are really narrowly focused on revenue and don’t respect any type of long-term vision for the university, even though they tried to sell it that way. And the best example of that is the contract that was signed with Academic Partnerships,” Bohn told Inside Higher Ed.
Under pressure, St. Cloud State administrators struck back with a campaign of their own, launching a website encouraging the community to “Stand with SCSU.” They made the case that change was needed, arguing that “leadership is taking bold steps to grow enrollment.”
In videos posted to the “Stand with SCSU” page, community members, faculty, alumni and students express their support for the university. A frequently asked questions section also offers information on the arrangement with Academic Partnerships to offer online programs.
The Stand with SCSU website emphasizes the enrollment challenges driving cuts in certain programs and stresses the benefits of the arrangement with Academic Partnerships. It defends the plan as financially beneficial and necessary to attract and better serve nontraditional students.
“Our mission is to serve the educational needs of our community and state, and this includes providing high quality online programs to working and busy adults who are not able or willing to come to campus. By providing an online option, SCSU creates access for students who otherwise would not be able to earn their degree on-campus,” the website notes. “By partnering with AP, SCSU can reach students we would not otherwise have access to. Offering prospective students this chance to obtain a degree does grow our enrollment and tuition revenue.”
Now, despite faculty concerns, some of the online program offerings are scheduled to launch in the near future.
Last month, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system signed off on a plan to launch three of the 11 proposed expedited online programs. After two years, if SCSU can show that the courses are successful, system administrators will allow the university to roll out three additional programs in the same format.
But critics question whether subsequent scrutiny of the plan led to Wacker’s contract not being renewed. Bohn noted that the IFO has made the case “that President Wacker has probably reached the limit of her abilities and it may be time for new leadership” at SCSU.
St. Cloud State officials did not respond to an inquiry from Inside Higher Ed. Asked for comment, Minnesota State system officials ignored specific questions, sending details on the presidential transition instead.
At 66, the outgoing president says she has no plans to retire. She told the Star Tribune that such a move was “not in the cards” and she is trying to figure out her next step.
“When I first arrived, there had been a decade [sic] worth of challenges here. My task, as I saw it, was to lead this university to a better place,” Wacker told The Star Tribune in an interview Monday. “And I feel like I have. There’s great foundational work that we’ve accomplished and now it’s really [time] to hand that off and say, ‘Let’s keep going’ and ‘Help us build the next chapter.’”
In a press release from the university, Wacker said the decision to leave “was extremely difficult.”
(Neither university nor system officials responded to questions about who made that decision.)
With Wacker headed for the exit, St. Cloud State will soon begin the hunt for her successor. The Minnesota State system will launch a search in January with plans to hire an interim president who will start in July, according to details outlined in a memo shared by a system official.