The university's decision to close the long-running program jeopardizes the future of St. Cloud Regional Airport.
The shutdown of the state's only nationally accredited collegiate aviation program by St. Cloud State University is under fire from supporters of the St. Cloud Regional Airport. The closing threatens federal funding the airport depends on.
The St. Cloud City Council, the area planning organization and the airport advisory board have all called on SCSU to undo the closure, which prevents new students from enrolling this fall.
Airport Director Bill Towle said 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.
SCSU's Aviation Department is the largest program affected by campus cost-cutting. Grounding it will save the university $610,000 a year in expenses.
SCSU President Earl H. Potter III said the program is no longer viable, despite a long and impressive tradition. The department is a national leader in corporate aviation and three years ago added an FAA-approved air traffic control program.
"We have very fine students in a very strong program we can no longer afford," Potter said.
President defends closing
He said the resolutions calling for the program's rescue arrived after the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system (MnSCU) approved the closure, which was based on a review he described as thorough and open.
"Presidents don't do these things capriciously," he said.
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 two men are working with airport supporters and St. Cloud City Council Member Jeffery Johnson, an SCSU aviation professor, to get the decision overturned.
Towle said the possible withdrawal of federal funds isn't immediate, but losing student activity that accounts for 40 to 50 percent of takeoffs and landings will undoubtedly cost the airport some federal support. The airport is owned by the city, so any shortfalls would fall on local taxpayers or lead to service cuts.
"It's a downward spiral effect," Roger Bonn, chair of the airport advisory board said. "It's going to be bad for our airport and there's no ifs, ands or buts about it."
Bonn said St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis will attend the board's June 6 meeting to discuss actions to appeal the shutdown. If the university can afford to refurbish its hockey arena at a cost of more than $30 million, it should be able to retain an academic program that was the second-largest degree producer within the College of Science and Engineering as recently as 2006, Bonn said.
Current enrollment in aviation is 163 students, and plans have been made for a "teach out" of qualified students. St. Cloud State is the biggest school in the MnSCU system, and the aviation closure coincides with deep budget cuts, including a $14 million reduction in SCSU's 2012 budget.
A September 2010 report from the SCSU Strategic Planning Committee was unsympathetic to the airport. "We cannot support asking SCSU students to subsidize this program in order to support another public entity," it said.
The appraisal of the Aviation Department centered on results since 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.
Potter said MnSCU's annual cost study shows aviation as having the third-highest program cost. Only engineering and nursing are more expensive.
"This is not something that my staff ginned up in the back room," Potter said. "I have to cut programs in order to protect our core strengths."
Forecast better, say backers
But Raiber and Mattson said aviation is a core strength and student interest in aviation has been revived by a brighter employment outlook. They said Potter's administration is wrong to say interest in the program is declining.
Mattson said his own research shows that far more programs are expanding or opening than closing.
"I think St. Cloud has picked the perfect time to do the wrong thing," said Steve Jones, executive director of flight operations at Western Michigan University College of Aviation.
He said hiring forecasts are so demanding that major airlines are considering a "large number of imaginative ways" to ensure an adequate supply.
The Federal Aviation Administration forecast is for domestic air travel to grow annually at 3.1 percent, roughly doubling by 2031.
In addition, a study by the International Civil Aviation Organization predicts a growing need for pilots, aircraft technicians and air traffic controllers within the next 20 years.
At Western Michigan, aviation department officials recently made a deal with Pinnacle Airlines to employ future graduates who meet pre-determined qualifications. Jones said the industry will soon need twice the number of pilots that four-year aviation colleges currently can produce.
Raiber said Potter's administration damaged SCSU's aviation program by failing to trim faculty during the downturn. Potter said staffing levels were maintained according to the wishes of the program. Tenure rules also would have complicated such a cut.
"This gets pretty speculative," Potter said. "Everybody has a theory about what somebody else should have done to save the program."
If SCSU's program folds, the state's only broad-based aviation degree program will be a shaky one at Minnesota State University at Mankato. Smaller than the SCSU program, Mankato aviation was on the chopping block until local businesses pledged $214,500 to save it.
Minnesota State spokesman Michael Cooper said fundraising is lagging behind a goal of up to $600,000, but the effort was enough to win the program a three-year reprieve. After that, it will be reassessed.
Potter noted that St. Cloud airport backers have not come forward with financial pledges. Bonn said there was no outreach from the university.
Tony Kennedy 612-673-4213
• Started in the 1930s as part of the Federal Civilian Pilot Training program
• 163 students
• Annual expense: $610,000 a year
• Only nationally accredited program in state
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