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With narrow work force focus, MnSCU has lost its way

While the chancellor and trustees would deny it, they seem to view MnSCU students as little more than merchandise, mass-produced to fill orders for its business customers.

A top priority of the leadership at the Minnesota State College and Universities (MnSCU) is simple, appealing, — and terribly misguided. They see themselves in the business of providing vocational training to meet the needs of Minnesota employers. Have the chancellor and board of trustees forgotten that they run a public higher education system, not an employment agency for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce?

Monte Bute
Monte Bute

Last year MnSCU, in partnership with the Chamber of Commerce, held 50 “listening sessions” with over 500 employers statewide. “By listening to Minnesota employers,” Chancellor Steven Rosenstone said, “we can obtain a greater understanding of the state’s work force need.”

There were no such highly publicized listening sessions for students, faculty, staff, or local communities.

Because of this shortsightedness, “work force development” now trumps most other criteria for teaching and learning. While the chancellor and trustees would deny it, they seem to view MnSCU students as little more than merchandise, mass-produced to fill orders for its business customers. MnSCU now even has production quotas.

Produce leaders — or followers?

MnSCU students (and their families) understandably want to succeed and find good-paying jobs. But why must MnSCU measure success in the narrow terms of students’ fit with work force trends? Critical thinking, creative problem solving, and communication skills remain essential tools for leadership in a world desperately seeking transformative leaders — and yet MnSCU appears more interested in producing followers.

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The University of Minnesota and private colleges like Carleton and Macalester realize that high standards produce leaders, managers and innovators, while mediocre standards create a workforce whose fate it is to follow the orders of others.

While there is no shame in working for others, shouldn’t we give all students a skill set to establish their own ceilings in life? Then let the market sort out the supply and demand for labor. Planned economies are notoriously inefficient.

The leadership qualities fostered by a traditional liberal arts education are, at best, an afterthought for MnSCU’s leadership. Some state university teachers actively seek to subvert this academic class system by providing elite education to the masses, despite a centralized juggernaut that has strictly utilitarian goals for most of its students.

Subtle inequality

As Louis Menand points out in a recent New Yorker essay, “This is why liberal education is the elite type of college education: it’s the gateway to the high-status professions.” Most parents would say that’s what I want for my children.

Like the barnyard critters in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” all Minnesota colleges and universities are equal, but some are more equal than others. Masking this subtle inequality with claims that merit determines outcome is disingenuous — learning opportunities in our state are inequitably distributed.

Most MnSCU students are as quick-witted as their counterparts at more elite institutions are. Regrettably, this intellectual potential and the opportunity to develop that gift are often a mismatch at MnSCU’s colleges and universities. As a result, the system diminishes these students’ life chances.

How have we gotten into this quandary, and why is it getting progressively worse?

MnSCU is, in fact, among the most centralized systems of public higher education in the nation. With best of intentions, former Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe and the Minnesota Legislature passed a bill in 1991 merging three independent systems — state universities, community colleges, and technical colleges — into what has since become an über-bureaucracy.

Unintended consequences

Legislators were oblivious to the unintended consequences that might follow. What they had intended was a rational and efficient federation of relatively autonomous public colleges and universities. Instead, what history has bequeathed us is a Byzantine empire, with top-down management ruling local campuses like colonial outposts.

Established in 1995, MnSCU has become the elephant in the room for local campuses. Its staff has proliferated into nearly 400 administrative employees, imposing board policies and dictating procedures to its 31 college and universities — and their faculties.

The central office staff of MnSCU — many of whom have never taught a university class, graded a paper, advised a student, or written a scholarly article — spend far too many of their working hours as busybodies. They browbeat local campuses and their faculties with what Emerson called “A foolish consistency [which] is the hobgoblin of little minds,” while neglecting important matters like academic excellence and leadership development.

What can we do?

Students and their professors are the heart and soul of higher education. All other partners exist to support the teaching and learning process. MnSCU is no longer part of the solution; it has become part of the problem. Is MnSCU past its expiration date? At minimum, Minnesota needs a new chancellor and some fresh trustees.

Monte Bute teaches sociology at Metropolitan State University, a MnSCU institution in St. Paul and Minneapolis.


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