As Yankton College’s only full-time employee, Jan Garrity knows how tough running a postsecondary institution can be. There are students to educate and degrees to confer; faculty and staff to hire and pay; a campus to maintain and a mission to uphold.
But the college Garrity runs—in the once-booming, now-sleepy Missouri River town of Yankton, South Dakota—is different than most postsecondary institutions in that it doesn’t do any of those things. That’s because the school—the Dakota Territory’s first college—closed down in December 1984, following decades of financial instability compounded by a decline in enrollment.
The U.S. Bureau of Prisons ended up buying the college’s property a few years after the closure, and the onetime campus—with its astronomical observatory and garden-terrace theater, its buildings bearing the names of school leaders and donors, and a dining hall that once served imported-oyster dinners—has housed a federal prison ever since. Khaki-uniformed inmates now spend their days barricaded from the outside world in the same corridors and lecture halls and dorms that once served as bridges to that very world.
So why employ an executive director to oversee a college whose only tangible remains serve not to enlighten but to incarcerate? Why even refer to Yankton as a college, when it stopped functioning as one three decades ago?
December 21, 1984, the day the then-century-old school filed for bankruptcy and closed its doors, didn’t mark the end, or even the beginning of the end, of Yankton’s existence; it was more of a turning point. Yankton still held its final commencement the following June, inviting graduating seniors—who’d been forced to spend their spring semester at other schools—back to campus for a small ceremony in the gymnasium. Yankton’s Board of Trustees—a body that exists to this day—even appointed a local businessman as the college’s new, postmortem president, tasking him (ultimately to no avail) with figuring out a way to revitalize the campus.
Yankton College continued (and continues) to exist even after it tied up the loose ends, too, and this is where Garrity comes in. Part of her job resembles that of a registrar: There are transcripts and other student records to maintain and provide to alumni if and when they request copies, for example. Alumni-relations duties account for another chunk, such as the all-class reunions, popular events that draw roughly 200 alumni from around the country to Yankton every two years and supplement the regional alumni get-togethers in areas ranging from New England to Arizona. (The agenda for the biennial reunions always includes a tour of the prison.)