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MnSCU’s reform efforts omit key priorities

The MnSCU system’s wide-ranging reform plan somehow omitted “affordability” and “quality” among its priorities.

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There’s an adage that says: If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Since the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system was created in the mid-1990s, far too much in higher education is met by the “hammer” of centralization. MnSCU’s recent plan titled “Charting the Future” is a case in point.

Recently, the MnSCU system office invited approximately 0.073 percent (a grand total of three) of the state’s university faculty to explore the topic of higher-education reform. Beyond being unrepresentative, this process was sequestered for months until the embargoed report was aired in the summer of 2013. It was only then that faculty, students, families, and taxpayers learned that this wide-ranging reform had somehow omitted “affordability” and “quality” among its priorities. In doing so, it is clear that, short of any response, a more centrally managed, corporate, anti-union, and unaffordable “hammer” for higher education is on the horizon. 

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I’m in my 22nd year as a state university professor. I’ve seen students struggling with college costs and working far too much in part-time jobs to reach their potential. What should be an exciting time of personal growth can become a time of debilitating stress and depression due to the prospect of repaying huge student loans. The shame is on all of us for doing so little, as funding per student in Minnesota has dropped 21 percent since 2006. But it’s even worse that our brightest and well-meaning experts in reform are producing an even more ham-handed retreat by giving the MnSCU system office even more control over the state university campuses. This is exactly the wrong remedy if we truly want our students to thrive on their campuses, move up the career ladder, and become more effective citizens.

Contrary to the MnSCU plan, there is no basis for centralizing the state’s academic programs. Innovative research and teaching do not thrive under the yoke of statewide directives and top-down controls. If that were true, any number of dictatorial regimes would be ruling the world today.

Bureaucratic tethers

Darrell Downs
Darrell Downs

I am also a parent of a state university student. Isn’t it reasonable for all parents to expect that if their children work hard enough, they should be given a chance to excel at a state university capable of carving out a distinctive mission and academic programs without unnecessary and costly bureaucratic tethers? Centralization at this level didn’t work in the former Soviet Union and it won’t work in Minnesota.

Contrary to the MnSCU plan, there is also no urgency for a centralized e-education strategy, on-line learning portals, or customized training for private companies. Technology is essential in education today, but it is neither inexpensive nor does it always produce a high-quality education. Furthermore, the centralization of technology-led (rather than content-led) education risks creating a system that is even more dependent upon, and controlled by, businesses with political clout in St. Paul and yet not providing accessible and affordable residential campuses.

Why would any parents want their children to attend a state university that is rewarded by a system office for promoting customized work-force training – which is already served well by the technical colleges – rather than a university that is rewarded by sustaining strong liberal-arts and science programs that provide a vibrant social and civically engaged educational experience, and an even more financially rewarding future?

Also contrary to the MnSCU plan, there is no reason for union busting in higher education. There may be some devotees of merging – destroying – public unions among the anonymous drafters of the MnSCU report, but simply having an opinion is not a rationale, nor is it an excuse for attacking public educators, staff, and maintenance workers on our campuses.

And as a parent and a professor, I would prefer that all students should be able to study at a state university where working conditions are protected by clear, fair, non-merged, and non-muddled bargaining agreements. Wouldn’t that help us attract and retain the best instructors and staff possible?

A redeeming element

The one redeeming element of the MnSCU plan is its priority for “access.” Indeed, we should all be working on ways to make higher education more accessible, but unless we make sure that the access is both affordable and excellent, all the access in the world is not going to matter. Some of our state legislators have discovered this crucial nexus between access, affordability and excellence, and we should do the same.

It’s too bad that priority was missed by MnSCU’s plan. Maybe the shadow of centralization was just too large to see the other tools in the toolbox. 

Darrell Downs, Ph.D., is president of the Winona State University Faculty Association and a professor in the Political Science Department.

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