Closing a distinguished career of over 31 years at MSU, President Roland Dille looks forward to leaving the presidency this coming summer. He expects to spend more time visiting grandchildren and to begin writing books on subjects that interest him, such as MSU, or perhaps Dassel, Minn., where he spent his childhood years.
After graduating with honors from the University of Minnesota and teaching at the University of Minnesota, St. Olaf College and California Lutheran College, Dille enthusiastically landed at MSU in 1963 as an assistant professor of English. After several years, he became MSU’s associate academic dean, working his way into the position of academic dean by 1967. In 1968, Dille began a 26-year journey as MSU’s eighth president. “Obviously, this kind of employment movement within the MSU institution suggested that it was my kind of place. I fitted it, and it fitted me,” Dille said.
Over the years, Dille has never lost sight of what has kept him at MSU. “I came here because of MSU President John Neumaier and I discovered, when I came down here, that it was a lively place intellectually, much livelier than any place I’d been before, much more sophisticated, much more cosmopolitan and a lot more fun,” says Dille.
Yet the first few years of his presidency were sometimes impacted by controversy, including student demonstrations and student strikes, often generated by student activists who were protesting America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
For example, said Dille, the War, was never politically motivated. The problem, Dille admits, was the lack of available funds; he unexpectedly had to help G. Theodore Mitau, who was the chancellor of the Minnesota State College System, correct a budgetary error.
In fact, Dille testified on Coyle’s behalf before the draft board. “They were drafting him for reasons that were illegal. They disapproved of his opposition, so they were punishing him for being against the Vietnam War,” says Dille.
“There were problems in the beginning,” Dille admits “because of the activism of students, but we got through that without damage, with a great number of the most radical faculty being sympathetic to my point of view, having to keep the school open.”
Among Dille’s many policy decisions, he is particularly proud of two. One of them, made in 1968, centered on going ahead with project E-Quality that resulted in the active recruitment of minority students.
The other, however, still sparks controversy in the FargoMoorhead community, since it touches upon his relationship with the sports community.
“My decision not to be given to the bullying of sports reporters, and the constant complaining of the sports people in the local media that I didn’t do enough for athletics, is also pretty important. I am really glad I wasn’t bullied into making athletics a disproportionate part of our program,” says Dille.
The issue of censoring newspapers has occasionally come up during his administration. Dille sides with those who want to safeguard the students’ freedom of expression, except “if The Advocate set out to hurt somebody.”
Despite these difficulties, Dille has kept a sense of humor, jokingly telling a group of sugar beet growers that he once heard a Quaker farmer threaten a mean cow. “I shall sell thee to a Lutheran who will beat the hell out of thee,” Dille remarks.
“For my generation, that is, for boys who graduated in 1941, 1942 and 1943, with some a little older and some a little younger, an important part of life consisted in moving back and forth most evenings between Frank Dwyer’s gas station and Matt Delong’s Coffee Cup Café, with occasional detours to Oscar Lindquist’s Downstairs Cafe, which was full of pictures and autographs and hundreds of other mementos of Oscar’s lifelong interest in Dassel, in history, and in famous people. Thick 10-cent malts and the nickel hamburger may have been the best bargain in the history of gourmet eating,” remembers Dille.
“If you grow up in the Depression, like I did, you learn to work hard. You learn to trust people, that’s a quality of a small town,” says Dille.
Serving the MSU community while enjoying an appetizing variety of books, Dille thinks that the breadth of his lifelong liberal arts education, including a serious interest in Old English, has made him a better teacher and administrator.
President Dille ranks his ability to effectively communicate with others as his most important strength.
“I communicate fairly easily. I do a lot of writing and a lot of speaking. I think, because I’m an English teacher, I’ve come to understand people pretty well,” observes Dille.
Despite the current financial difficulties of MSU, largely created by declining student enrollment and the tight-fisted policies of Minnesota’s Legislature, Dille remains upbeat about MSU’s future, though cherishing the school’s fascinating past. “On the whole the institution I saw, when I came, is the institution I see now. It’s not as exciting now as it was then, but it is better in a lot of ways. What we have going for us is what we had then, that is, a faculty that was exciting,” adds Dille.
In Dille’s opinion, the “secret” to MSU’s high -quality education is that faculty chairs and deans “have always hired good people to be their colleagues. It’s fun to be a part of an institution of academic integrity.
“It’s fun to be part of an institution that is achieving what it wants to achieve. And, I’ve discovered, year after year, how well thought of we are elsewhere in the country, by people who know education,” says Dille.
Nevertheless, Dille sometimes worries about the demands of some faculty. “I have some faculty who believe that if they don’t get exactly what they want, then they have been mistreated. That is a problem for me,” Dille says.
Dille continues to be concerned about the classroom activism of a small number of faculty members, some who may use their profession to espouse political ideology.
“There is a tendency more and more for people to preach rather than teach, to take political principles and decide to save their students from their unsophisticated political views, with courses essentially put together to make the teacher feel good, rather than to have the student know something,” says Dille.
Overall, though, Dille remains extremely proud of MSU’s faculty, “who have not surrendered to the students’ love of good grades,” while striving to improve MSU’s high-quality education. “A strong faculty, insofar as I have been responsible for that, and I have been by talking about it all the time, has enabled us to have strong students. That’s really my legacy to Moorhead State,” says Dille.
“I’ve had enough experience with tyrants not to want to be one, and I think I haven’t been. I’ve made some impulsive decisions. But, on the whole, I’ve always known that what you do has to be generally acceptable. And so, if it is generally acceptable, it has to be explained carefully and I’ve been a pretty good explainer. Once, the Faculty Senate turned me down cold on the New Center. The next time they had to read a 22-page memo from me, and they accepted it,” affirms Dille.
“I think the great message that anybody in education ought to give is: read, think and talk. Reading, reflection and conversation, that’s what counts. Never lose faith in the capacity of every human being, including yourselves, to recognize that you are capable of all sorts of glorious things, like listening to good music, looking at art, reading good books, and thinking deep thoughts. That’s where pleasure lies.”