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Ryan Johnson, Published May 29 2013

Family history in mind, Szymanski to retire from leading MSUM

MOORHEAD – The president of Minnesota State University Moorhead said the timing’s right for the next stage in her career – retiring next summer at the age of 62 so she and her husband have plenty of healthy years ahead to get through their bucket list.

Edna Szymanski said she decided last fall to retire June 30, 2014, after what will be the end of her sixth year with the school.

She said it ended up being an easy decision for several reasons – especially because she didn’t want to make the same mistake as some of her friends, who worked too long and ended up with a spouse too unhealthy to enjoy retirement.

“I don’t have the best genes in the world, and combining not the best genes in the world with the kind of unhealthy lifestyle that this job promotes is not a recipe for longevity,” she said.

Szymanski said the women in her family typically didn’t enjoy long lives – her mother died at age 54 – and her husband of 40 years, Michael, comes from a family that too often saw its men die at a young age.

Retiring next summer will give them time to travel together, and she said they’re already starting to plan a long trip to Australia and New Zealand and looking into a vacation in Ireland.

Though they both grew up in Pennsylvania and mostly lived along the East Coast before she became MSUM’s 10th president in 2008, Szymanski said they now consider themselves “adopted Minnesotans” who will make their permanent home at their lake place in Detroit Lakes.

She said this past winter “confirmed” another part of her retirement plans – to winter in a warmer climate, most likely somewhere along the east coast of Florida.

But she said she also carefully considered the needs of MSUM, the school she’s led through times of tough budgets, spring flooding and major changes to its place in the community.

University officials recently completed a new strategic plan and wrapped up a one-year process to plan a complete overhaul of the academic structure on campus, and both will be phased in over the coming months.

Szymanski also cited one of her primary efforts at MSUM, focusing on the academic success of students by raising admission standards and trying to better track student performance, and said the university is now making strides toward that goal.

The university also will be celebrating its 125th anniversary during the 2013-14 academic year, and she said the next president will be in a good place to take over a thriving institution next summer.

“If you think about it, there’s not really much of a better time to make a change, because we have such good momentum,” she said. “To be honest, I can say absolutely with certainty that the place has got a great future.”

Szymanski said a search firm likely will be hired this summer to find her replacement. Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Chancellor Steven Rosenstone will visit campus several times this fall to consult with students, faculty, staff and the community as the search process begins.

Establishing a legacy

MSUM Faculty Association President Ted Gracyk said Szymanski has been a “staunch supporter” of shared governance and ensuring faculty members play a role in big decisions since coming to campus in 2008.

But he said her biggest accomplishment has been guiding the university through difficult financial times as Minnesota grappled with a large deficit and slashed funding to its public institutions, a move that prompted deep cuts on many campuses.

“You just need to look at the layoffs at a couple of other state university campuses and you can see that she has been a very careful steward of our budget,” he said.

Gracyk said Szymanski also has worked as a “highly transparent” leader who has listened to faculty concerns – even if she didn’t always agree.

Former Student Body President Russel Ferguson said Szymanski is a supportive leader who’s “passionate” about her work. He said Szymanski’s leadership hasn’t always earned praise on campus – something he said comes down to her intentional shift to serve as an “external president” seeking new donors and funding for the university.

“I think that overall, if she were to stay with us for another five years, you would see all the changes that are happening are good changes and things would solidify,” Ferguson said. “It’s too bad she’s leaving.”

Provost and Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs Anne Blackhurst said Szymanski has been an open, accessible, approachable leader who also has a “no-nonsense side” when necessary.

“She’s had to make some really difficult decisions and some difficult changes during her presidency, and she’s done what’s been necessary for the good of the university,” she said. “I think even people who have disagreed with some of those decisions understand and believe that Edna clearly has the university’s best interests at heart.”

Szymanski said she’s looking forward to her retirement, and said she and her husband will exercise more to get healthier so they can fully enjoy their free time.

But she has plenty of plans for her last year at MSUM, including heading up several 125th anniversary celebrations and implementing the university’s new strategic plan and academic alignment.

Szymanski said she’s ready to join her predecessors in handing off control of the university after years of working to make it a better place.

“It’s a precious trust and responsibility that each of us passes down to the next,” she said. “I feel very confident that I am passing it along in a way that is going to help it shine brightly for the future.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587