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Tammy Swift, Published December 31 2009

10 to Watch in 2010: Szymanski guides MSUM through budget crunch

“10 to Watch in 2010”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Readers submitted their nominations, and Forum editors narrowed the list. The result is our “10 to Watch in 2010” list. It’s an elite group of local folks – some you already know, some you’re likely to know soon – who are poised to be newsmakers in 2010. This is the final installment.

In her 1½ years as president of Minnesota State University Moorhead, Edna Szymanski has demonstrated the people skills of the counselor she once was, a CFO’s eye for the bottom line and a four-star general’s gift for strategizing.

Oh, and the enthusiasm of a hockey mom.

It’s an unconventional combination, perhaps, but it’s worked.

The dynamic leader has done much for a university beset by dwindling enrollment, a low profile and a name frequently confused with Minnesota State University, Mankato.

Sporting a Dragons-red sweater and a frequent smile, Szymanski speaks enthusiastically about how she plans to address MSUM’s challenges in the next few years.

She talks of a commitment to boost the university’s enrollment and tuition revenue by 6 percent by fall 2011. A goal to increase scholarships, alumni engagement and fundraising. A drive to implement a strategic marketing plan – something the university hasn’t had in years.

All this, while facing a $4 million budget deficit by 2012-13.

“You have to do more with less,” says Szymanski. “OK, my approach is, ‘Stop whining about it and let’s all work together and make it happen,’ and we have as a university. We’re ahead of the curve in dealing with the recession in comparison to most other universities.”

Indeed, Szymanski has managed to guide the institution through a 14 percent budget gap without cutting faculty or staff. Early retirement incentives, a hiring freeze, larger class sizes, reduced operating budgets and a new “banded tuition” structure have helped ease the shortfall.

She also has maintained a refreshing philosophy of openness. She updates the community through town hall meetings and insists on posting budget news on the university’s Web site.

Not surprisingly, she’s candid about future plans, which include hitting a projected 2013 enrollment of 8,000 students by amping up MSUM’s previously neglected marketing and student-recruitment divisions.

“The only places I’m spending money are in the revenue engine, which is marketing and admissions,” she says. “You have to look at it like a business.”

MSUM’s admissions process has been beefed up with more recruiters, better tracking efforts and updated recruitment plans.

Szymanski also hired the institution’s first marketing director in years. Marketing efforts include a direct-mail campaign, new billboards and plans for a more customer-friendly Web site.

As part of an overall branding effort, market research is also being conducted on whether MSUM could adopt its previous, more popular name, “Moorhead State University” as its official nickname, Szymanski says.

There’s even been buzz about adding a Division I hockey program. Szymanski believes D-I hockey could be a great economic boon to the area, but adds she won’t consider it until the university can afford it. (It would cost at least $10 million to establish such a program.)

Whatever MSUM’s future holds, Szymanski is excited about it. She believes the university is an easy sell.

“We have a strong product,” she says. “This institution is incredibly strong, but most people don’t really know how strong it is. We haven’t told the story. Now we’re going to see to it that we tell the story.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525