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When MnSCU sneezes, the campuses catch cold

For MnSCU to serve its campuses, it cannot expect them to surrender to the opinions of private consultants and political appointees on matters of educational excellence.

Winona State University generates an annual economic impact of $307 million.

The Minnesota State Colleges and University System (MnSCU) and the campuses that make up this system are not the same.

Darrell Downs
Darrell Downs

The campuses are where more than 430,000 students study and work to improve their lives. With distinct missions and traditions, which in some cases predate the Civil War, the campuses offer educational opportunities and extraordinary economic and cultural value to the state. Estimates of the economic impact alone are astounding. According to Wilder Research [2013, PDF], Winona State University generates an annual economic impact of $307 million. Taking all of the state universities and two-year colleges together, they are the 8th largest employer in Minnesota and they generate an economic impact of more than $8 billion per year. The additional benefits resulting from the access to cultural, scientific, and social opportunities on each of these campuses are immeasurable.

MnSCU, by contrast, is a modern bureaucratic experiment. Created in 1991 by now-retired politicians, MnSCU has struggled to find its own identity. Promoting faddish reforms and employing expensive (so they must be good) consultants has become the norm. And as this nascent Leviathan has grown, we’ve learned that its actions often come at the expense of students and their campuses. Unfortunately, when MnSCU sneezes, the campuses catch cold.

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Who could forget the $62.8 million increase for MnSCU’s Enterprise Technology Plan back in 2007?  At a price that could have directly provided tuition, room, and board for thousands of students, MnSCU opted for techno-wizardry that included Second Life (another private company) as a host for setting up virtual learning simulations. Provocative indeed, and yet a costly experiment that resulted in little value for students and faculty who – need I say – value human relationships over avatars in education.

Who could forget MnSCU’s “Accountability Dashboard?” As if parents and students are more interested in MnSCU’s on-line “composite financial index” than the affordability of tuition and the availability of courses and programs? Really?

The latest experiment

The latest MnSCU experiment is known as Charting the Future. With a generous contract to McKinsey & Company, this well-connected change agent is all about “productivity.” Aspiring to the type of success modeled by Western Governors University and DeVry University, McKinsey & Company’s productivity puts diplomas in the hands of students faster than a consultant can say “yes” to $2 million in corporate welfare – which is exactly what MnSCU paid for its advice. But have the campuses been polled on what it means to be productive or what constitutes real change? No.

So the saga of MnSCU bureaucracy continues. It is made up of well-meaning professionals whose own success depends on the campuses. For MnSCU to genuinely serve the campuses, however, it cannot expect the campuses to surrender to the opinions of private consultants and political appointees on matters of educational excellence.

A campus committed to high quality and accessible learning is a good thing. A campus capable of resisting corporate or fleeting political takeovers is a good thing. And a campus willing to take a principled stand for educational excellence is the type of campus that will stand the test of time. MnSCU has yet to learn that lesson. 

Darrell Downs, Ph.D., is president of the Winona State University Faculty Association and is a professor of political science and public administration at WSU. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of his employer. 


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