ST. CLOUD — St. Cloud State University President Robbyn Wacker announced Monday she is stepping down as president in June after six years at the helm.
Wacker, 66, was appointed as the 24th president of the institution in 2018, becoming the first woman to be SCSU's permanent president and the first openly gay person in the role. She succeeded Ashish Vaidya, who led the university for two years following the sudden death of Earl Potter, who was killed in a car crash.
Wacker told the Star Tribune on Monday that she isn't sure what her next role will be. But as the child of parents who both dropped out of high school to help their immigrant parents work in Colorado's beet fields, she wants to continue as an advocate for access to higher education.
"Retirement is really not in the cards, I don't think," she said. "I'm a first-generation student and all of this has always been about paying it forward and trying to make a difference. So at this point, it's just about trying to figure out what the next step is for me."
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Wacker is leaving amid turbulence over budget cuts, faculty layoffs and a controversial partnership with a for-profit company to provide accelerated online classes. This spring, Wacker announced cuts to two dozen faculty jobs and 70 academic programs amid a looming $24.5 million budget deficit. Dozens more jobs are expected to be cut in the next few years.
University leaders have attributed the chronic budget deficit to a steady enrollment decline that wasn't met with a similar reduction in staffing levels, as well as instructional costs that are the highest among the seven Minnesota State universities. The university's annual operating budget is about $198 million. The number of undergraduate and graduate students is about 10,130; the university saw its peak of 18,300 students in 2010.
Earlier this year, Wacker said the cuts will save money and better align programming with the so-called "It's Time" strategy that launched a few years ago. The strategy emphasizes being a leader in four academic areas — holistic health and wellness, applied science and engineering, education and leadership — as well as improving student experience and better reaching nontraditional learners.
That plan also relies heavily on a push for new accelerated online programs that are intended to reach adult learners who want to complete their college education. The university planned to launch 11 undergraduate programs this fall but the Minnesota State system paused those plans to review the proposal. The system recently announced it gave conditional approval for SCSU to offer three undergraduate programs.
Before coming to SCSU, Wacker studied gerontology and sociology and then served as professor and administrator at the University of Northern Colorado.
Wacker said Monday that she feels it is time to hand over the reins following successes in the strategic framework that have led to increased enrollment and retention rates, a successful fundraising campaign and innovative programming such as e-sports.
"When I first arrived, there had been a decade worth of challenges here. My task, as I saw it, was to lead this university to a better place," she said. "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.'"
Wacker said she thinks the future of higher education will be defined by a continual disruption due to demographic shifts, evolving public perspectives on higher education and increased competition.
"We're going to have to continue to be focused on differentiating revenue generation. We're going to have to continue to think about what we do here as lifelong learning: If we can get you at 18, great. If you want to work for a couple years then hop back in — great, we're ready for you. If you want to keep working and build credentials, we've got that, too," she said. "I think the challenge is to see the shifting nature of higher education as our new normal and continue to adapt."
Minnesota State Chancellor Scott Olson said Wacker has led SCSU through the most challenging time in higher education's history with "positivity, empathy and vision" and that "her commitment to student success and Equity 2030 has laid a foundation of excellence at the university that will impact the region for years to come."
Equity 2030 is a goal set by the system in 2019 to close educational equity gaps across race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status and geographic location.
Wacker will depart June 30 upon completion of her contract. Olson said the board of trustees will launch a search this spring for an interim president who will serve a two-year term beginning July 1.