As I blogged about recently, the uncertainty following the closure of Dana College in Blair, Nebraska, has left a sizable portion of the town’s incorporated limits in a state of escalating neglect. While the downtown and residential districts of Blair remain tidy (if not exactly teeming with life), the small city’s most prominent institution is closed, most of its buildings completely unused. Learning the politics and real estate maneuverings behind it, I don’t see any real corruption or malicious intent behind Dana College’s closure, but that doesn’t matter any more to the homeowners who gaze upon those boarded-up buildings from their front yards than it does to the miscreants who break in and unleash the fire hoses. Or push a piano down a flight of stairs.
The closure of a college or university may be relatively rare, but it certainly happens from time to time—and tiny liberal arts schools in semi-rural locations in the Midwest seem particularly vulnerable. Earlier this year, Nebraska journalist Katie Rohman compared the loss of Dana to Tarkio College, another Midwestern school in a rural setting that closed—a quarter of a century ago. The tiny college in northwest Missouri recently reopened to host adult continuing education classes, but for much of the time, it sat vacant and forlorn, searching for another user. In all that time, at least a few Tarkio buildings decayed beyond recovery.
The website America’s Lost Colleges covers more of these defunct institutions than any other online site I can find, and, through sorting the schools by state, it really does appear that the central plains have hosted a disproportionate share of closed schools: Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Nebraska. My guess is that pioneering religious orders may have founded many of these institutions to serve what at the time were fairly homogenous settlements, expecting most young people to remain close to home for their higher learning, and that they’d choose a school that comports with their religion. That is, the town’s college affiliates with the town’s church, and most people in town attend that church. In these hyper-mobile times, such a life path lacks great appeal. And the rural Great Plains, never thickly populated, is sparser than ever: the majority of counties in states like Kansas, Iowa, and Nebraska are losing population, even though prairie cities like Wichita, Des Moines and Omaha are growing at a good clip.
The same could be said the landscape of higher learning in South Dakota as well—a prairie state that still has witnessed its fair share of college closures. Yankton, SD hosts one of the better-known examples.
This city of not quite 15,000 people (about twice the size of Blair) long claimed two liberal arts colleges within its city limits. One of them, Mount Marty, seems to be maintaining a steady enrollment of over 1,000. The other, Yankton College, opened in 1882 as the Dakota Territory’s first college, nearly a decade before statehood. It operated for over 100 years but succumbed to financial troubles in 1984.
At this point, though, Yankton College appears to enjoy a much more promising second life than Dana College, its counterpart to the south.Well-maintained buildings, immaculate lawns, streets lined with mature trees. The houses all surrounding the campus look like they used high quality construction materials, suggesting that, when Yankton College was operative, the area was one of Yankton’s most prestigious neighborhoods.Even thirty years later, the homes facing this defunct college still look great. All my photos come from area on the campus periphery. Why? I had no choice; a fence surrounds the entirety of the Yankton College campus. While perimeter fences to college campuses are common, this is no longer a college. A sign at one corner indicates the school’s new life:
The complex of buildings is now a prison: the Federal Prison Camp of Yankton, South Dakota. As far as preserving the college’s built environment, this could be one of the best possible outcomes. The US Department of Justice has saved virtually all of the old buildings, and while they aren’t immediately accessible, at least the school survives through more than the memories of aging alums. The same can’t be said of many of the campuses featured in the America’s Lost Colleges website, of which not a trace of their physical presence remains.
So I didn’t try to access the prison grounds. Why should I? I had no real reason to be there. But a closer look at this perimeter fence reveals something clearly amiss.Doesn’t exactly have “prison” written all over it, does it? No barb or concertina wire, no sentries or guard posts, and much of the time the fence is short enough that it would take no real effort to climb over it.We’ve all seen homeowners’ front yards with rougher fencing than this. And, much like our college campuses, the complex offers gates that help to filter the points of ingress.The truth is, the Yankton Federal Prison Camp is about as minimum-security of a prison as one can find, housing exclusively non-violent and white-collar criminals. It even made Forbes’ 2009 list of America’s Cushiest Prisons. It didn’t seem reasonable for me to capture any close-in photos of the inmates, but they can generally walk around freely within the grounds, crossing streets from one building to another with limited supervision. The color of their uniforms: white.In some respects, the Yankton Prison Camp still retains a collegial character: it hosts a disproportionate number of educational services, including accounting and business administration classes. It even has recreational fields, which, needless to say, look far better than the comparable fields at Dana College:
The one other irony from this outcome is that Yankton Prison Camp defies the stereotypes of prisons or jails as Locally Unwanted Land Uses (LULUs). The area around the former Yankton College harbors what appears to be some of Yankton’s best real estate. Virtually all the perimeter streets look like this:Clearly, the relations between the warden or management of this prison and the surrounding community aren’t exactly fraught. Few people seem to see the inmates as a threat to the health, safety and welfare of Yankton’s children, and we all know that the most impassioned NIMBYs play that “child card” first and foremost when objecting to new development. (“Think of the children!!!”) As a recent article from the Yankton Daily Press and Dakotan indicates, the Prison Camp outcome was hardly what founder Yankton College founder Joseph Ward intended, but it retains a legitimate public good. In an era when, unfortunately, higher learning and liberal arts colleges have a much more checkered future than our need for Laura Norder, we may see other schools suffer a similar fate as Yankton College in the near future. It may prove the highest and best use for the grounds of Dana College as well. The retrofit of an old school to a minimum-security prison is probably simpler and less costly than an adaptive re-use in the opposite direction. After all, schools need to look good to retain demand and compete in the marketplace, so the prospect of converting a prison to a school is almost unthinkable. But prisons? Despite the fact that a disproportionate number in this country are (quite controversially) privately operated, their customers can’t exactly be choosy on the aesthetics. The market for prisons depends irrevocably upon the public sector. All the best to stay in school and stay out of trouble. Chances are slim you’d end up in place as posh as Yankton Prison Camp.