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'He saved the university' | News, Sports, Jobs – Marshall Independent

by Arifa Rana

Apr 19, 2022
Photo courtesy of Southwest Minnesota State University In this photo, former SMSU President Jon Wefald delivered the university’s 2007 commencement address. Wefald, who served at SMSU from 1977 to 1982, is credited with expanding the university’s enrollment and saving it from a possible closure
When he arrived at Southwest State University in 1977, Dr. Jon Wefald faced some daunting challenges.
Student enrollment was slipping, and Minnesota state lawmakers thought the university might have to be shut down.
Turning things around for what is now SMSU meant building partnerships and major recruitment efforts — but Wefald pulled it off.
“I think it’s not overstated to say he saved the university,” said David Simpson, a former SMSU faculty member who worked with Wefald.
“He worked hard to raise the profile of Southwest Minnesota State University,” said current SMSU President Kumara Jayasuriya. “That helped the Legislature realize how important SMSU was to this region.”
Wefald, whose career included terms as Minnesota agriculture commissioner, president of SMSU, chancellor of the Minnesota State system of colleges and universities, and president of Kansas State University, died Saturday. He was 84.
Wefald suffered a heart attack at his home on Bay Lake in Minnesota, the Manhattan, Kansas, Mercury reported.
Education was big part of Wefald’s life and work. His first full-time job after completing his doctoral degree was teaching at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter. In 1970, he was appointed agriculture commissioner by Gov. Wendell R. Anderson.
When Wefald became president of what is now SMSU in 1977, the university’s future was looking cloudy.
“He led the university through some challenging times,” Jayasuriya said. “Enrollment was down when he started, and people were talking about closing the university.”
Simpson said one of the big things Wefald did as president was to help build harmony with the university faculty again. At the time, state legislators thought SSU couldn’t support the number of professors it had, Wefald said in a 2017 interview with the Independent.
Wefald said he took the risk of offering five retrenched professors their jobs back with tenure, and it helped forge a new partnership with the faculty.
“I was president of the faculty association at SSU when he was hired,” Simpson said. “He was great to work with, always upbeat.”
Wefald also took an active role in recruiting for the university. He made a plan to talk to 94 different high schools within a certain radius from SMSU, plus about as many civic organizations, cooperatives and farm organizations.
The plan had him out promoting the university four days a week, he said in the 2017 interview.
“It was unheard of for the president of a university to go out recruiting, but I did,” Wefald said. “I even recruited football players to turn their record around, too.”
One of Wefald’s recruits in the 1970s was Mustang football and baseball player Curt Strasheim.
“He really took a shine to athletes,” Strasheim said. “Jon used to invite me up to his office the Wednesday of game week and ask what the game plan was.”
Strasheim said he and Wefald stayed in touch over the years.
“He was a one-of-a-kind individual,” Strasheim said. Wefald had a great sense of humor, and could be very talkative about subjects he was interested in, like history, Strasheim said.
“He had a different style,” Simpson said.
When you brought a question to Wefald, he said, “You just had to realize, for the first 15 minutes he’d talk about all the good stuff going on.”
Simpson said Wefald took pride in the university, and would even pick up litter as he walked across campus.
Wefald would go on to become Minnesota State chancellor from 1982 to 1986, and then president of Kansas State University. Simpson said it seemed to be a better fit for Wefald than the chancellor’s office.
“I think he kind of jumped at (the position),” Simpson said. “You could see he really liked the university atmosphere.”
Wefald served as Kansas State president from 1986 until his retirement in 2009. During his tenure there, he became known for the same kind of expansions he had helped make possible at SMSU.
“He really did the same thing, just on a bigger scale,” Strasheim said. Wefald’s accomplishments at Kansas State were “no joke,” Strasheim said.
Under Wefald’s leadership, Kansas State’s enrollment grew from 16,000 students to 23,000, the campus added 2.2 million square feet of new building space and annual research funding increased to $134 million, the Associated Press reported.
In an Associated Press report, former U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts remembered Wefald as “a human dynamo.”
Roberts worked with Wefald to secure a national biosecurity lab on Kansas State’s main campus in Manhattan, Kansas.
“Jon just came down and turned everything around and an amazing short period of time — athletically and academically,” Roberts said.
Both Strasheim and Simpson said they had looked forward to talking with Wefald more after his retirement. His loss would be felt.
“It ended too soon for him,” Simpson said.
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