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Early Years

first bsc class of 1939Created in 1939 in response to a community need for a local college, Bismarck State College was originally known as Bismarck Junior College. The first students began classes on Sept. 4, 1939, on the third floor of Bismarck High School with 107 full- and part-time students and 12 instructors. The small population of BJC created a close educational community that grew steadily over the next few years. By the late 1940s, a new location became increasingly urgent as college enrollment soared with returning GIs.

In 1951, the North Dakota Legislature responded to an appeal from community leaders to grant the college 15 acres for $6,000 on the Capitol grounds for a campus site. BJC moved into its own building at 900 Boulevard Avenue in 1955. A local mill levy funded construction, but after four years, both the college and state government needed more space, and BJC once again sought a new campus site.


Moving to Schafer Heights

1967 aerial image of campusIn 1959, the future home of Bismarck Junior College was open prairie atop a high bank overlooking the Missouri River. Harold Schafer, a local entrepreneur and founder of the successful Gold Seal Company, had a barn there for his horses, which grazed the windy, rolling sweep of pasture and farmland. Schafer heard about the need to expand Bismarck’s growing community college and donated 70 acres that year for a campus.

On May 19, 1960, Schafer turned the first shovelful of dirt on what was called Schafer Heights. He and BJC Dean Sidney J. Lee spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony, where many seated spectators formed a backdrop behind the podium flanked by a large American flag. Among the attendees was Gov. John E. Davis.

The new building, completed in 1961 for $1 million, was three stories and designed to hold all college classes and activities within roughly 56,000 square feet. Eventually, the structure was named the Harold Schafer Academic Center, and finally, Schafer Hall.
bagpipe band

BJC continued to grow during the next decades, and even as enrollment increased, the campus was a tight-knit group. Many alumni and former faculty remember the family atmosphere of the early days on Schafer Heights. BJC’s student life thrived in extra-curricular activities and events, such as the Visiting Scholars Series, Jazzfest, the bagpipe band, the Mystician, musical theatre productions, and sports.


Growth and Change

A major historical change occurred in 1983, when the 48th Legislative Assembly passed a bill to bring BJC into the North Dakota University System. On July 1, 1984, governance and control of BJC transferred from the Bismarck School Board to the State Board of Higher Education. After several proposed name changes, the 50th Legislative Assembly renamed BJC to Bismarck State College, effective April 27, 1987.
jack science center
In the 1980s, a strong focus on beautification pervaded BSC. Projects included parking lot and landscape development, sidewalks, handicapped access, outdoor lighting, and permanent outdoor benches in some areas. This initiative spurred the planting of Linden trees along Edwards Avenue, bringing some green to the prairie hill campus.

The early 1990s saw the funding and construction of the Jack Science Center, which increased instructional space by 30 percent and improved the quality of hands-on education at BSC. Students and faculty were at the forefront of raising funds for the new building, as Schafer Hall’s lab technology was outdated and unreliable. When the new building opened in 1998, it was the most advanced science facility in North Dakota.

During the 2000s, BSC developed partnerships with utilities and energy associations to launch new programs in the power industry. BSC became the first institution to offer its energy programs online, leading to BSC's recognition as a national leader in energy education. With grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.S. Department of Labor, the program roster continued to grow, and allowed students to access lab equipment and learn necessary job skills online.


Campus Expansion

bsc campus aerial

The BSC campus changed dramatically between 2000 and 2010 with the construction of five new buildings. Spurred by enrollment that jumped 52 percent during the decade, the college balanced its need for space by structuring community partnerships and obtaining funds from the BSC Foundation, Leach Foundation, state Legislature and elsewhere. BSC also leased all or part of three buildings within campus boundaries, as well as space in downtown Bismarck, and established a Mandan campus.

The Bismarck State College Mandan campus at 1831 Twin City Drive SE in Mandan opened in 2007 to house the Mechanical Maintenance Technology program. The $2 million facility was funded through the sale of bonds, a federal earmark, funds from the City of Mandan, and contributions from industry.

Health Sciences moved to its new location in 2019, a fully renovated facility adjacent to campus with almost double the space of the previous location. This new virtual hospital environment allows collaboration between Health Science programs, using state-of-the-art technology to prepare students for healthcare jobs of the future.  


A New Polytechnic Mission


In 2018, the ND State Board of Higher Education directed BSC to expand its mission to become a polytechnic institution, and BSC officially began functioning as North Dakota’s only polytechnic institution on Oct. 1, 2020. Toward that mission, BSC has enhanced its focus on hands-on learning, industry integration and a career-focused curriculum including a growing number of stackable certificates and K-12 pathways that lead to degrees in high-priority occupations.

Specialized technical programs developed by industry leaders allow students to pursue high-wage and rewarding careers. BSC’s expanded mission means that students find flexible pathways to achieving their educational goals, as well as opportunities to work while learning through internships and field experience in the community.

Today, Bismarck State College is the third largest institution in the North Dakota University System which includes 11 research, four-year and two-year institutions. BSC serves about 4,000 traditional college students and 22,000 community members through continuing education and training. BSC offers more than 100 technical and transfer programs. In addition to certificates and two- and four-year degrees, students can transfer to other institutions or earn bachelor’s degrees on campus through partnerships with other North Dakota universities. BSC serves students locally, regionally and globally.

To learn more about our new mission, visit BSC’s Polytechnic.


Celebrating Over 80 Years of Community

""Since 1939, BSC has always centered its energy and efforts on the students. Bismarck State College provides a smart, affordable education for students in all stages of life, both on-campus and online as North Dakota's only polytechnic institution. 

Our programs offer hands-on learning to create professionals who are workforce ready! For more than 80 years, BSC has proudly trained students to be relevant, invaluable contributors to their workplaces and communities.

Read more about our history from a special 75th Year edition of the BSC Connections Magazine published in August of 2013.

Deans and Presidents

Dr. Walter J. Swensen (1939-1948)
Bismarck Junior College’s first leader, Dean Walter J. Swensen, is described by alumnus Myron Atkinson, ’47, as a “scholarly individual” and remembered as a “nuts and bolts guy” who quietly inspired students.
A professor of economics, psychology and history (among other subjects), Swensen was not an outgoing person, but was an inspiring instructor, “so much so that I made up my mind to be an economics professor,” Atkinson said. “[I]n a one-on-one situation he could really get to you and raise your hopes. And, it was a time in my life where I needed a little bit of that. That was his nature,” he continued.
Swensen earned his bachelor’s degree from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and his master’s and doctorate from the University of North Dakota. Recognized nationally for his work in education and psychology, personal papers donated by his family in 2010 illustrate his studiousness and his dedication to his role.
The bound book – part record, part personal journal – includes minutes of early BJC board meetings, lists of faculty and students, class schedules, events, photographs, programs, news clippings, cards of congratulations from the governor and officials of the time, and a 1944-45 college catalog.
The papers depict a very different time and a more intimately connected faculty, noting not only the addresses and educational background of the early faculty, but also their marital status and the church they attended.
Swensen saw the college through early, very limited budgets and rapid enrollment growth with 107 students in the first class and 216 in the fall of 1947.
Swensen left BJC in 1948 to become the state director of mental hygiene, a division of the North Dakota Department of Health. He died January 15, 1956 at the age of 59. He is remembered at BSC today in the women’s residence hall, Swensen Hall, and through a perpetual scholarship established in his honor in 1986.
Sidney J. Lee (1948-1961)
Remembered for his approachability and support for the arts, Dean Sidney J. Lee led the college from 1948 to 1961. During his tenure, the college moved from the third floor of Bismarck High School to its own building near the Capitol in 1955, and then to the present location in 1961. Like Dean Swensen before him, he faced funding challenges.
“He had enthusiasm, but had the same problem as Dean Swensen. You didn’t get much money from the Bismarck School Board to run Bismarck Junior College,” said Myron Atkinson, ’47.
With a tuition-only funding model, Lee was innovative in his funding efforts. One year, he organized a Christmas tree sale in order to make payroll.
“He was ferocious,” former president Kermit Lidstrom said. “You couldn’t turn him down. I’m sure there were times the college would have disappeared without his energy and focus.”
Retired BSC librarian Lois Engler appreciated Lee’s ability to raise funds, but not all of the choices he made for using the funds – particularly when it came to library acquisitions. “He would use some of my money to buy some esoteric thing like a book on English gardens. Well, we didn’t need a book on English gardens.”
His choices might not have been universally embraced, but they were both bold and lasting. It was Lee’s idea to establish a bagpipe band even though the band director at the time, Clarion Larson, didn’t know how to play the pipes. The band garnered national attention for BJC during its 20-year run.
Lee also established the music department and the Young Artist Series designed to bring promising young musical talent to Bismarck. The Sidney J. Lee Auditorium was dedicated in 1962 during an intermission of a Young Artist Series concert. The guest performer was the Lees’ daughter-in-law, pianist Patricia Taylor.
Alumnus Ev Miller’s first wife, Laura, worked for the dean, whom he remembers as a “wonderful man.” Miller said Lee was particularly supportive when he and his wife adopted their first child. “His only son was adopted and so he was enthusiastic about it. He wrote letters and made phone calls for Laura and me. The day we picked up our oldest daughter, that day we heard on the radio that he’d died of a massive heart attack.”
Lee earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Valley City State College in 1929, and a master’s degree in 1934 from the University of Washington, Seattle. He did further graduate study at Harvard and taught high school in Williston and Bismarck. Lee died on August 28, 1961, at the age of 56.
In addition to the Sidney J. Lee Auditorium, a BSC Foundation scholarship was established in his honor in 1962.
Ralph Werner (1961-1977)
Ralph Werner, third dean and first president of BSC, began his career at Velva High School in 1937. Hired by the Bismarck Public Schools in 1941, he taught business classes at the high school and college level, joining the U.S. Air Force in 1943. He became registrar in 1946 and continued teaching. In 1948, he was named business manager, assistant to the dean in 1958, acting dean in 1961, and dean the following year. The title was changed to president in 1967.
Extraordinarily well liked, Werner grew the college in budget, buildings and students. He successfully lobbied the state Legislature for funding and succeeded in landing a 10-mill levy from the city to support the college. Increasing the budget through state and city contributions substantially expanded BJC. During his tenure, BJC grew from one to six buildings and increased by more than 1,500 students.
Noted for his sense of humor, those who knew him also appreciated his warmth. Former librarian, Lois Engler, called him a humanitarian.
“Ralph Werner, without a doubt, was my very favorite. He was so good to everybody and, with his sense of humor, if there was a problem he was always able to get it straightened out.”
He was active in the community college movement nationally but always focused on the campus and individuals. Longtime BSC employee, Linda Fossum, remembers he was always ready with advice or a funny comment. “He told me once ‘if you’re walking in the hallway, at least have a pencil in your hand. People will think you’re working.’”
“I don’t think anyone has been more loved than he was - just a wonderful fellow; well-liked by everybody,” Carolyn Twingley, ’68, said.
Werner retired in 1977 after 36 years with BSC. In 1979, he received the BSC Distinguished Service Citation. The citation reads, “During his 16-year tenure as president of the college, Ralph Werner guided the institution to a position of stability and prominence among North Dakota’s Colleges.”
The Bismarck State College Foundation established a scholarship in his honor in 1979, and Werner Hall was named for him in 1989. Werner died March 15, 2009, at the age of 97.
Dr. Kermit Lidstrom (1977-1995)
A Mandan native, Dr. Kermit Lidstrom became president of BSC in 1977 and served in the role for 18 years. Described as a “difference maker,” Lidstrom is credited for improving the college in a variety of ways.
Lidstrom had a career in marketing before moving into higher education. In 1976, he received a doctorate in education from Nova University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and was named BJC president the next year.
“Kermit had the advantage of being an outsider. He came with a fresh view and … new ideas. [It was] good for the college to have that,” alumnus Myron Atkinson, ’47, said.
That fresh view and his natural momentum made those first years a little rocky according to Lidstrom. “In retrospect, I should have moved a little slower,” he said.
But, once Lidstrom’s presidency hit its stride, he made a substantial mark on the campus and beyond thanks to his community viewpoint. “His focus was on making BSC the best possible BSC it could be right here in Bismarck. He was a president who perfected things,” said Drake Carter, provost and vice president of academic affairs.
Lidstrom reorganized the BSC National Alumni Association, expanded the Division of Community Services, and developed a campus day-care center. He also established the Bismarck State College Foundation, an organization that began with $69,000 and reached $10 million in distributed foundation dollars in 2012.
The Foundation has supported students, employees and growth through its endowed funds, scholarships and grants. “Without the Foundation and Kermit germinating that initial seed, [BSC] wouldn’t be where we are today,” said sixth BSC President Larry C. Skogen.
Campus beautification was a priority of Lidstrom’s as well. During his tenure, hundreds of trees and flowers were planted on campus, enhancing the natural beauty of the college’s setting overlooking the Missouri River. He also was vital in getting legislative and community support for the Jack Science Center.
Lidstrom’s ongoing generosity to the Foundation and presence at BSC academic and athletic events provides a historic continuity appreciated by President Skogen. “I enjoy him. He’s so supportive of campus, [and I] love talking to him … he’s our biggest cheerleader,” Skogen said.
The Foundation established a perpetual scholarship in Lidstrom’s honor in 1995, and Lidstrom Hall, the co-ed residence named for him, was completed in 2008.
Dr. Donna Thigpen (1995-2006)
Her “backbone of steel” and entrepreneurial spirit ensured that BSC grew in leaps and bounds during Dr. Donna Thigpen’s years as president. Thigpen excelled at creating partnerships with business and industry and collaborations with other colleges. Under her leadership, 14 baccalaureate programs became available through distance learning on the BSC campus and more than 20 new programs were added to BSC’s transfer and technical offerings. As a result, enrollment swelled between 1995 and 2006, increasing 53 percent.
According to provost Drake Carter, Thigpen was a “ball of fire.”
“[She] was a real change agent. Her interest was in driving BSC forward – not only to be the best we can be in Bismarck-Mandan, but any place in the country [or] around the world.”
As a key player in implementing the state workforce training model, Thigpen was instrumental in the creation of industry driven programming, particularly related to the energy industry. Her leadership in this area resulted in establishment of the National Energy Center of Excellence and success of the $18.3 million capital campaign to build it. BSC has since become a national leader in online and on-campus education for the energy industry.
“What Donna brought to this college was a view of creating programs in response to community, business and industry,” said sixth BSC president Larry C. Skogen. “[Because of] the culture she created in developing programs, people are used to developing new programs.”
In addition, she led development of the Dakota Nursing Program, a collaboration of North Dakota’s four community colleges, whose combined resources offer much-needed statewide nursing education and training.
Thigpen embraced and leveraged technology, equipping all faculty members with laptop computers and encouraging use of technology in teaching. She also became the driving force for enhancing student services to increase retention.
Upon her retirement, then University Chancellor Robert Potts said, “Her tenure has been an unqualified success.”
Thigpen received the Distinguished Service Award at BSC’s 72nd Commencement Ceremony in 2012 for guiding BSC from a traditional campus to a forward-thinking institution that offers on-campus and state-of-the-art online education.
Dr. Larry C. Skogen (2006-2020)
Dr. Larry C. Skogen retired on June 30, 2020, after serving BSC as president for 13 years. He holds an undergraduate degree from Dickinson State University, a Master’s in History from University of Central Missouri, Warrensburg, and a Ph.D. in History from Arizona State University, Tempe. A native of Hettinger, N.D., Skogen held a strong career in the U.S. Air Force before returning to North Dakota in 2007.
Skogen led BSC through a period of massive growth and change. During his tenure, the college completed 16 major building projects, including the addition of the Mandan Mechanical Maintenance Campus, the National Energy Center of Excellence, the BPS Career Academy, and the new Health Sciences Building.
When he first came to BSC, Skogan said that people were still calling it “the high school on the hill.”
Under his leadership, the college grew both in campus size and enrollment. Skogen is proud to have put BSC on the map. In 2013, enrollment passed 4,000 for the first time. BSC has remained the third largest college in the North Dakota University System.
From day one, his energy and ideas inspired the campus. He showed up in classrooms and faculty meetings, talked to students between classes, and regularly attended the concerts, games and events that are the fabric of BSC. He was always thinking and always looking forward.
Whether in a speech to the energy industry, a casual conversation with a parent or in one of his frequent blog entries, Skogen worked to paint a vivid picture of BSC’s current achievements and the unlimited potential he saw.
In 2018, BSC announced that it would become North Dakota’s first polytechnic institution. Skogen and his leadership team believed that offering four-year Bachelor of Science degrees in technical fields, in addition to maintaining the college’s certificate, diploma, and associate degree offerings would strengthen educational opportunities in North Dakota. Still, Skogen continued to emphasize the “spirit of accessibility and affordability that has benefitted students since 1939.”
Skogen was named president emeritus upon his retirement through a unanimous vote of the State Board of Higher Education. He identifies himself primarily as a historian, and he plans to pursue historical scholarship projects during his retirement.
Dr. Douglas Jensen (2020-present)
In the midst of the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Doug Jensen stepped into the presidential role at BSC on June 1, 2020.
Jensen had served Rock Valley College (RVC) in Rockford, Illinois, as president since 2016. Before arriving at RVC, Dr. Jensen was president of the Alabama Technology Network (ATN) in the Alabama Community College System. Jensen received a Doctorate of Education from Edgewood College in Madison, Wis.
Jensen is looking forward to expanding BSC’s polytechnic mission, maintaining enrollment numbers and connecting with the community.