Students looking to learn to fly are out of luck if they’re also looking to attend SCSU.
The controversial closing of the long-standing program has rippled waves of debate by students and faculty members alike. One thing is clear: As of May 2014, the last students of SCSU’s Aviation Department will be graduating.
The reasons why, however, are not as clear.
Aviation has been a part of SCSU since the 1930s, when it began participating in the Federal Civilian Pilot Training program. The United States government sponsored this program and its primary purpose was to increase the number of civilian pilots, having a clear impact on military preparedness.
Then in 1949 the SCSU Aero Club, Inc. was established by a small group of students, faculty members and staff. As interest from students began to grow, SCSU began offering aviation classes on campus. An aviation emphasis was added to the Technology major offered in 1978 and by 1987 the university had a B.S. in Aviation approved.
Departmental status was granted in 1996 and the B.A.S. in Aviation Maintenance Management was added not long after.
Since this time SCSU has enjoyed being the only nationally accredited aviation program in the state of Minnesota; it is also the national leader in corporate aviation and three years ago added an FAA-approved air traffic control program.
One of the things that set the SCSU Aviation Department apart is how the program was run.
“SCSU doesn’t own a single plane; it’s one thing that makes this aviation program really unique. We started out as an Aero club, it’s a student-run organization that owns the airplanes. That’s how our department started, with enthusiastic people that wanted to learn to fly and it just grew from there,” said Jessica Miller, member of the Aviation Ambassadors.
That fact, however, was not enough to save the program from being cut due to budget constraints. Earl H. Potter III, president of SCSU, made the announcement Sept. 28, 2011 that the aviation program, along with 29 other programs, would be cut and new admissions to the program would no longer be accepted. SCSU’s Aviation Department is the largest program affected by campus cost-cutting. The historic program will save the university $610,000 a year in expenses.
The appraisal of the Aviation Department centered on results gathered beginning in 2006, when enrollment dipped, fewer degrees were granted and the department was losing money. In 2010 alone, the department’s deficit was about $250,000. In addition, the planning committee foresaw the need for expensive upgrades in training equipment and hiring faculty.
The closure of the SCSU aviation program has an impact which ranges further than the SCSU campus. The St. Cloud Regional Airport has a lot riding on the SCSU aviation program as well.
Airport Director Bill Towle said in a May 2011 Star Tribune article that the city relies heavily on student activity at the airport to justify federal funding, including all the money to staff the airport’s control tower. Losing the tower would hamper the region’s efforts to regain commercial airline service, he said. In the same article, former SCSU Aviation Department chairs Patrick Mattson and Ken Raiber said the administration’s rationale is deeply flawed; the program is being cut just as a recession-related slump is ending and commercial carriers are clamoring for pilots with four-year collegiate degrees, they said.
The St. Cloud City Council, the area planning organization and the airport advisory board have all called on SCSU to undo the closure.
Students currently enrolled in the program can graduate, but those who want take flying lessons will have to go out-of-state, or to more expensive schools. The latest update from the aviation faculty is that by May 2014, the doors to aviation classrooms will be locked.
This has taken an emotional toll on students and faculty alike.
SCSU Records and Registration state there are currently 117 students enrolled in the aviation program, but faculty have said that there are more like 194 when those on military deployment are included.
St. Cloud aviation teachers are some of the many being affected by the closure. Though many don’t see their class sizes dropping yet, all want definite answers as to why the program is being closed for good.The answers seem to vary.
Jeff Johnson, an SCSU Aviation teacher and city council member, doesn’t understand the reason behind the close.
“We’ve been given eight to ten reasons why, but all we want is a definite answer. We feel that this process wasn’t transparent and was done behind closed doors,” Johnson said.
Other teachers, like Johnson, were informed in writing about the closure in September of 2010, but have never been approached by President Potter himself.
“Neither Potter nor the provost have told us a legitimate reason to why the program is closing. Not once have they come over here to talk to us,” Johnson said.
Many aviation teachers are struggling with what to do next.
Angie Olson, an adjunct professor, doesn’t know what to expect.
“I should be part-time for the next semester or two, but after that I’m not really sure. Because I’m not a tenured faculty member I don’t get any separation benefits,” she said.
Although teachers are unsure about their own futures, one thing remains constant: Encouraging students to pursue their dreams of aviation will not yield.
“I think it’s a loss to the students and to the university. The ripple effect of this program is huge, but the student results have been phenomenal and they make us not want to give up either,” said Olson.
Despite the closure, students are continuing to fight for their wings.
Many students in the SCSU aviation program are very disappointed that there will no longer be an accredited aviation school in Minnesota. The aviation program at SCSU being nationally accredited has a major influence on the students’ futures and the accreditation, it is argued, can make a difference on whether and when the students graduate.
Jake Oswald, a graduate of SCSU in 2010, earned a degree in Aviation Operations. He recently got offered a job in Utah as an air traffic controller and says, “None of it would have been possible without the AT-CTI program at SCSU.”
“In the aviation community, SCSU was well known,” Oswald said.
“In how much power I had at my division in the aviation community at SCSU, I was involved in everything that was going on. I was fully informed on all of our accreditation reviews and everything. Every year we passed the inspection by the accreditation board. If we weren’t meeting the standards for accreditation they would have unaccredited us before they shut us down,” Oswald said.
The AT-CTI (Air Traffic – Collegiate Training Initiative) program is one of the newer programs offered by SCSU’s Department of Aviation. According to Oswald, a university is not allowed an AT-CTI program unless the university has an accredited aviation program.
Not only are students such as Oswald upset that the aviation program will no longer be running for students, but also that there will now be one less nationally accredited program in the U.S.
While students may be frustrated about the closure of the program they are trying not to let it affect the time they still have at SCSU. Some have seen a dip in morale.
“My first year there was this kind of energy about the department and now it’s like everyone went into survival mode,” said Ryan Allex, SCSU aviation student.
The closure of the program has caused some to become even more dedicated, however, said Shajive Jeganathan, vice president of the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE).
“I’ve noticed there is no loss of morale, no depressed people sitting around. There’s been a good approach,” he said.
According to Jeganathan the student organizations have been doing even more since the closure of the program was announced.
“You would expect a lot of students organizations to say, ‘We’re closing down, what difference does it make,’ but that’s not what’s happening. We’re doing a lot of things. They’re out there, they’re getting their name out there,” Jeganathan said.
In order to try and keep certain organizations going, the Aviation Ambassadors are going to merge with AAAE. The AAAE has even started to encourage students from all majors to join instead of keeping it specific to aviation students.
For a program which is a lot more than simply numbers for those involved many are looking for a reason which involves a lot more than a budget.
The SCSU aviation program was one of 31 at SCSU which were nationally accredited.