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Dr. Bernell Hirning: Catalyst for Change in Educational Administration


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Dr. Bernell Hirning, a distinguished professional with over three decades of experience in education, has made a lasting impact on academia. He began as a High School Business Teacher and basketball coach in North Dakota, followed by a stint as an Assistant Professor of Business at Mayville State University, and then nearly 20 years of higher education administration in California; all while earning four degrees, three from the North Dakota University System. While at Mayville State, he introduced the university’s first online Project Management course, demonstrating his dedication to innovative education.

Upon relocating to California in 2002, Dr. Hirning enjoyed an impressive 18-year career in higher education administration. Serving as Associate Regional Dean and Regional Associate Vice President at the National University, he showcased impactful leadership. Leading growth across several campuses in Northern and Central California, he skillfully combined onsite, offsite, online, and hybrid instruction to meet diverse student needs.

Dr. Hirning’s success lies in his commitment to community outreach and partnerships. His visionary approach resulted in over 50 cohort partnerships, fostering collaborations with government entities, school districts, businesses, and community colleges. As a champion of student success, he achieved remarkable results in student starts, retention, persistence, and completion. During his tenure at National University, he added crucial academic programs, including establishing the sole Nurse Anesthesia program in Fresno, and one of only five in all of California, highlighting his dedication to meeting market demands.

Dr. Bernell Hirning’s academic journey reflects his commitment to continuous learning. With a Ph.D. from Capella University, he built a strong foundation with a Master’s and Bachelor’s degree from Minot State University. His educational pursuits also include an Associate degree from Williston State College (formerly UND-Williston), demonstrating a comprehensive approach to academic excellence.

Having roots in the southwestern region of North Dakota, Dr. Hirning maintains strong ties to his community. His formative years at Mott Lincoln High School laid the groundwork for his future in education. This connection likely influenced his commitment to shaping educational landscapes in North Dakota and California.

Commitment to Fiscal Responsibility, Academic Excellence, and Modern Infrastructure

As the President of Williston State College, Dr. Hirning embodies fiscal responsibility and strategic leadership. His commitment to wisely managing taxpayer dollars demonstrates a clear grasp of the college’s financial foundation. Dr. Hirning’s focus on quality academic programs aligns with the need to maximize the value of these funds, ensuring that every invested dollar contributes to a robust and impactful educational experience.

Recognizing that the quality of education depends upon quality faculty, Dr. Hirning prioritizes cultivating a cadre of educators with expertise and dedication. By emphasizing the recruitment and development of top-tier faculty, he not only enhances academic programs but also ensures students receive an enriching and comprehensive learning experience.

Additionally, Dr. Hirning’s vision extends to the college’s physical infrastructure. Recognizing the significance of modern facilities, he aims to create an environment that instills pride in both employees and students. This commitment to state-of-the-art facilities underscores his dedication to providing a conducive and contemporary learning and professional growth setting.

A Model of Transparent Leadership at Williston State College

According to Dr. Hirning, an ideal educational leader embodies transparency and accessibility both internally and externally. Internally, they should foster an inclusive environment, ensuring all stakeholders, including faculty, staff, and students, have a voice and feel heard. Externally, the leader must maintain strong connections with the community, region, state, and national levels.

Dr. Hirning exemplifies these qualities through active engagement with various stakeholders at Williston State College. His deliberate efforts to be available to everyone, from meeting with state legislators for funding discussions to participating in media interviews, showcase his commitment to keeping communication lines open. Moreover, his willingness to meet with students and provide input for class projects highlights his dedication to creating an accessible and supportive educational environment. In this manner, Dr. Hirning aligns his actions with the qualities he deems crucial for an effective educational leader.

Evolution and Legacy of Williston State College

Williston State College, established in 1957 as an Extended Education arm for the University of North Dakota and later transitioning to the North Dakota University System in 1984, has evolved into a dynamic institution with a rich history. Originally named UND-Williston, it officially became Williston State College in 1999, introducing the TrainND Northwest workforce training division.

Presently, WSC proudly offers a comprehensive range of 13 disciplines for Career and Technical Education (CTE) and Associate’s level training. These disciplines, covering among others Accounting, Nursing, and Welding Technology, reflect the college’s commitment to providing current and relevant options aligned with student needs and industry demands. Notably situated in the heart of the Bakken Formation, WSC strategically tailors its programs and workforce training to address the employment requirements of the oil and gas industry.

Despite not claiming superiority over other institutions, WSC’s faculty and staff emphasize student learning and performance. The college’s forward-looking approach centers on programs that align with student aspirations and regional industry needs. Moving forward, WSC prepares for the next phase of growth by expanding healthcare programs to meet the demands of the medical community and contribute to a well-trained healthcare workforce in the region.

Strategic Vision for Growth

Dr. Hirning plays a crucial role in contributing to the success of Williston State College by recognizing the interconnected factors that influence enrollment growth and program relevance. Understanding the direct link between enrollment and relevant programs, he strategically aligns the college’s offerings with the region’s evolving needs. This foresight led to identifying healthcare expansion as a critical initiative, addressing the demands of the rapidly growing population in northwest North Dakota, currently the fastest growing in the United States.

Dr. Hirning’s proactive approach is evident in the College’s most recent capital project—a $37 million healthcare training facility. By investing in this facility, Williston State College is ready to introduce a range of healthcare-related programs, positioning the institution to meet the rising demand in the region. Essentially, Dr. Hirning’s leadership underscores a commitment to adapting to industry and demographic shifts and actively shaping the college’s trajectory to best serve students and the community.

Addressing Affordability, Community Needs, and Educational Access

The current education landscape faces challenges related to affordability and student debt. In response, Dr. Hirning, in concert with the College’s Foundation, is actively tackling these issues at Williston State College. With the support of a robust Foundation and generous donors, 88% of WSC students benefit from a scholarship program covering 100% of tuition and fees for their entire two-year associate’s degree program. This initiative significantly eases financial burdens and improves access to education for a 53-county area in western North Dakota and eastern Montana.

Additionally, Dr. Hirning recognizes and responds to community needs beyond the classroom. Acknowledging the shortage of childcare facilities in Williston, WSC collaborated with the City of Williston and Williams County to repurpose an on-campus building into a childcare learning facility. This addresses a local challenge and fosters an Education Program in partnership with Valley City State University, offering students internship opportunities toward program completion. Through these efforts, the College is actively bringing about positive changes by making education more accessible and responsive to the broader needs of students and the community.

Adapting to Changing Educational Landscapes

According to Dr. Hirning, students’ needs have changed significantly over the past decade, influenced by various modalities and shifting demographics. Beyond the traditional fully on-campus model, students now desire flexibility in their education. The emergence of fully online, hybrid, offsite, dual-credit, early entry, and part-time options reflects the demand for diverse educational experiences, accommodating different schedules and preferences.

In response to these changes, Dr. Hirning is guiding Williston State College toward adaptability. The institution is actively adjusting its modalities to meet the distinct needs of each student sector. This approach recognizes that the success of an educational institution relies on its ability to embrace and address the wide variety of student needs, ensuring accessibility and relevance in an ever-changing landscape. By embracing diverse modalities, Dr. Hirning is fostering an inclusive environment that aligns with the evolving requirements of students in today’s educational landscape.

Guiding Lights: Grandfather Jacob J. Hirning and Chancellor Dr. Jerry C. Lee

Dr. Hirning’s role model is his late grandfather, Jacob, whose impact is evident in the way he approaches life and leadership. During his youth, he observed Jacob’s committed approach to treating every person with utmost kindness and respect. This foundational principle instilled by his grandfather has become a guiding force in Dr. Hirning’s personal and professional life.

In addition to his grandfather’s influence, former National University Chancellor Dr. Jerry C. Lee played a significant role in shaping his values. Dr. Lee’s creation of the ‘Covenants of Pride,’ particularly the covenant urging individuals to ‘Be kind and respectful of others,’ deeply resonated with Dr. Hirning. This reinforced the importance of kindness and respect as core principles in his approach to leadership.

Both his grandfather and Dr. Lee have collectively contributed to Dr. Hirning’s ethos, emphasizing the significance of treating others with dignity and courtesy. These values have undoubtedly shaped his character and leadership style, influencing how he interacts with individuals in both personal and professional spheres.

Applying Project Management Principles in Work and Life

Dr. Hirning effectively manages work-life balance by applying project management principles, a skill honed during his tenure overseeing the Project Management curriculum at Mayville State University. Drawing from the nine knowledge management areas of the Project Management Body of Knowledge, he has learned the value of both short-term and long-term planning. This approach aids not only in prioritization but also incorporates the concept that ‘there’s always tomorrow.’ Beyond his professional endeavors, Dr. Hirning cultivates a balanced life by engaging with his family and friends, along with a variety of hobbies and interests that bring joy and relaxation.

Guiding Principles for Educational Leadership by Dr. Hirning

Dr. Hirning provides insightful guidance for emerging leaders in the educational field, emphasizing fundamental principles such as treating everyone with kindness and respect, regardless of differing perspectives. He stresses the importance of acknowledging and prioritizing the impact of words in communication. This foundational approach sets the tone for fostering a positive and inclusive environment within educational institutions.

In navigating the complexities of leadership, Dr. Hirning advises aspiring leaders to actively engage in key principles. This involves asking questions, listening attentively, setting clear goals, putting in dedicated effort, and maintaining humility throughout the leadership journey. By embracing these principles, educational leaders can effectively navigate challenges, build strong relationships, and guide their teams with purpose.

Furthermore, Dr. Hirning underscores the importance of attention to detail in educational leadership. According to him, recognizing the significance of all levels of detail is critical, as overlooking small elements can lead to major problems. This meticulous approach ensures thoroughness and excellence in the execution of educational initiatives.

In terms of team management, Dr. Hirning advocates for strategic hiring practices. He suggests selecting employees who are the right fit, providing them with adequate training, instilling trust, and empowering them to carry out their responsibilities. Recognizing and celebrating accomplishments becomes an integral part of creating a positive and motivated work environment, fostering a culture of achievement and collaboration.


ALSO READ: The 10 Inspiring Education Leaders, 2024



The Educational landscape is changing dynamically. The new generation of students thus faces the daunting task to choose an institution that would guide them towards a lucrative career.

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