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Jack Sparrow meets the Marble Boat: MnSCU’s System Office budget should be pared

WINONA, MINN. — A few years ago in a faculty newsletter, I drew attention to Minnesota State Colleges and Universities‘ (MnSCU) paranormal obsession for technology spending by comparing its System Office (SO) to the bureaucratic largesse of China’s declining Qing Dynasty. I suggested that as the Empress Dowager built the enduring yet dysfunctional Marble Boat for the Summer Palace, so too has the Minnesota Legislature built an interesting yet bureaucratic nightmare for higher education.

It’s even clearer today that Minnesota cannot afford a centralized and bloated bureaucracy. Facing a multibillion-dollar statewide budget shortfall, all of the state’s 25 colleges and seven state universities are planning for deep and possibly irreversible cuts (which they must do early to provide fair notice to students and staff). Meanwhile, the System Office sits on an $89 million-per-year budget that could — if common sense were a factor — be used in part to sustain the campuses.

It’s time to remind ourselves that the SO remains afloat in the first place because we, the state colleges and universities, support it from below. Yet based on the recent evaluation by the Office of the Legislative Auditor, it appears that below the waterline, the campuses are drowning.

Administrative skeleton filled out fast
The SO’s $89 million annual expense is, according to its statutory mission, to support and oversee academic programs, and control administrative costs at 32 colleges and universities. The issue is not whether the state has a legitimate role in steering the colleges and universities; it does. But as the SO bureaucracy was layered on top of campus administrations in 1995, this new administrative skeleton filled out faster than its capacity to support the very campuses it was created to serve. 

Consider the following observations in the report:

• Forty-seven percent of the campus presidents believe the SO is too large. Only 41 percent believe it’s about the right size. Translation: Even among those hired and paid by the MnSCU chancellor, there is little support for the existing scope of centralized management.

• Fifty-six percent of the campus presidents believe that SO oversight is either “fair” or “poor.”  Translation: Most presidents are not convinced that the System Office is carrying out one of its central missions.

• In 2010, the estimated cost in IT is expected to exceed $33 million. Translation: The only thing more expensive than SO technology is James Cameron’s blockbuster hit “Avatar,” and one has to wonder if the SO is trying to catch up.

• Sixty-eight percent of presidents note that the System Office is not effectively and efficiently working with campuses to develop new curriculum opportunities. Translation: The SO is more of a burden than help where campuses have their own administrative and academic systems.

• The Legislative Audit found that the SO facilities planning and management adds cost or time to campus projects, sometimes with “little or no added value.” Translation: Even on purely administrative support functions, it appears the SO is questionably helpful.

Not everything within the System Office is redundant. I am certain that its 400-plus employees are responsible professionals committed to educational excellence, and clearly their services are valued differently by different campuses. But the Legislative Audit also points out that before MnSCU was created, the combined central administration of the technical colleges, community colleges, and the state universities was only 233 full-time employees, while in 2009, it was 417. 

Ironically, during the same period of time, the SO’s spending on outside consultants increased by more than 100 percent — so much for the efficiency of a merged system. And now, when the state of Minnesota is no longer willing to pay for the SO’s marginal and sometimes nonexistent benefits, the campuses should not be forced to walk the plank.

Where to start paring
The System Office should continue to do what it does well, but let’s start by paring down its budget in academic affairs and information technology. Each campus already has its own governance systems for reviewing courses and academic programs, and each has vastly different capacities and needs for information technology. There is no reason for the SO to be heavily involved in these areas in the first place, let alone building a technocratic bureaucracy with an insatiable appetite for tax dollars.

Imagine the insanity of protecting the SO budget while the campuses are dismantled.  Eighty-nine million dollars is greater than the sum of the total annual base appropriations of Alexandria Technical College, Anoka Ramsey Community College, Central Lakes CC, Dakota County TC, Fond du Lac Tribal CC, Inver Hills CC, MN State College Southeast TC, MN West CC, Pine TC, Riverland CC, and St. Cloud CC. 

With historic budget shortfalls projected for the next biennium (FY 2012/2013), whether the SO cuts back its spending even a small amount could be a matter of survival for these campuses. 

Similarly, the annual budget of the SO is only slightly less than the total base appropriations for Winona State University, Minnesota State University – Moorhead, Bemidji State University, Metro State University, and Southwest Minnesota State University. Isn’t it obvious that administration at the highest and most distant levels from the classroom should be cut before anyone begins cutting academic programs and local student support services?

Thankfully, campus staff, faculty, and students are working tirelessly to minimize irreversible harm to the campuses.  With strong student demand and ongoing efforts to ensure that courses and local support systems are there for the students, we can overcome the budget crisis. But survival may depend on whether the Legislature will lighten the load of the Marble Boat. In the mutinous parlance of Captain Jack Sparrow, it might be time to unhook t’ barge, matey!

Darrell Downs is a professor at Winona State University.

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