At age 69, Earl Potter was showing no signs of slowing down. Only months ago, he had signed up for another three years as president of St. Cloud State University.
But on Tuesday, the campus was in mourning as word spread that Potter had been killed in a highway accident in Brooklyn Center Monday night.
“As a campus community, we’re all grieving this great loss,” said Ashish Vaidya, who was Potter’s second-in-command as the university’s provost. On Tuesday, Vaidya was named acting president.
At a hastily arranged news conference, college and community leaders gathered Tuesday morning to pay tribute to Potter, who had led the university since 2007.
“Earl’s passing is a huge loss,” said Steven Rosenstone, chancellor of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. “He was a highly respected leader both here in Minnesota and across the nation.”
Potter had been driving to a meeting in the Twin Cities when his Toyota 4 Runner struck a guardrail on Interstate 694 around 5:35 p.m., according to the State Patrol. The vehicle swerved and flipped over multiple times before coming to a stop. The crash is still under investigation.
The school posted a notice of his death on its website Tuesday morning. Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Amy Klobuchar both issued statements expressing their condolences and praising his service. “President Potter was such a good man and devoted his life to education & St. Cloud,” Klobuchar said on Twitter.
Mikaela Johnson, president of the St. Cloud State student government, fought back tears Tuesday as she remembered Potter. “He was a really loving and caring guy,” she said. “All he ever wanted was to make this a great experience for all students.”
Earl H. Potter III, an organizational psychologist by training, became president of St. Cloud State in 2007.
He led the school through a turbulent period that included tensions over racist graffiti, budget cuts and years of plunging enrollments that left St. Cloud State millions of dollars in the red.
But under Potter’s leadership, officials say, the school had finally started to stabilize, with a balanced budget and a projected uptick in students for this fall.
“The university is in very solid condition right now,” said Rosenstone.
Potter also was known for taking steps to repair the campus’ sometimes frayed relationships with racial minorities and the city of St. Cloud.
Haji Yusuf, a 2009 graduate and Somali community advocate, joined Tuesday’s news conference to mourn Potter, whom he called a good friend. “He’s made this space safe for everyone, regardless of your religion, your color, your sexual orientation, where you come from,” he said. “He was a bridge builder.”
St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis also praised Potter for building the “town and gown relationship” with the city by collaborating on multiple fronts, such as economic development and public safety. “We said very often the university will not do well unless the city does well,” he said. “He understood how everything in this community is interconnected.”
Wanda Overland, a campus vice president who worked with Potter since he started in 2007, called him an inspirational leader and mentor. “He would often say, ‘We’re fixing the plane while we’re flying it,’ ” she said. Now that the university is starting to emerge from its financial woes, she noted, it’s particularly sad that he won’t be there to see the full result of his work. “But we’re committed as a leadership team to ensuring that this legacy lives on.”
Potter, a retired captain in the U.S. Coast Guard, “was a complicated figure,” said Rosenstone. He didn’t shirk tough decisions, including budget cuts that weren’t always popular.
“[He] wasn’t always the cuddliest of colleagues, but he is the one we learned the most from,” said Rosenstone. “He was always doing what he thought, in the long run, was best for the students and the university.”