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MnSCU: Start the reform effort over, this time in full partnership with faculty, students and others

Chancellor Steven Rosenstone has a chance to slow down and go back to the drawing board.

Jeff Kolnick

It has been recently reported that the faculty who teach in the MnSCU system have withdrawn from the Charting the Future enterprise begun by the central office three years ago. And faculty members at five of the system’s seven state universities have passed no-confidence measures against Chancellor Steven Rosenstone.

Two premises drive the MnSCU Charting the Future initiative (CtF). The first is based on a false austerity assumption. Behind the Charting the Future agenda is the belief that “funding shifts” threaten access, quality and affordability. It is true that for years Minnesota has been shifting the cost of public higher education away from the state and on to the backs of students, most often in the form of crushing debt. The problem with CtF is that it ignores the recent infusion of tens of millions of new dollars into the MnSCU system.

In the last biennium, courageous legislators and Gov. Mark Dayton raised new progressive revenue and infused sufficient money to pay for a tuition freeze at MnSCU and the University of Minnesota. The college and university faculty supported this effort. Rosenstone’s budget [PDF] embraced austerity and promised a tuition increase for struggling students. The austerity premise is false. The antidote to austerity is to have the courage and vision of the DFL legislative caucus and Dayton.

Challenge of changing demographics

The second premise is Minnesota’s changing demographics: Our state is aging and becoming more racially diverse at the same time. This premise is well-founded. Tens of thousands of aging, white baby boomers are leaving the state’s work force every year, creating a need for highly trained workers to replace them. At the same time, the young workers coming up are increasingly metropolitan people of color. The challenge for MnSCU is how to redesign Minnesota’s state colleges and universities to meet the needs of the state’s economy and also the new, more diverse student body.

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Sadly, Rosenstone’s CtF implementation teams cannot do this effectively. Despite input from faculty to ensure that the teams have meaningful (not token) representation from diverse communities, as recently as one month ago, four of the eight teams created out of the MnSCU central office had no visible representatives from communities of color — none.

Tellingly, MnSCU went forward with charting the future of a racially diverse Minnesota with all-white teams for months before this oversight was discovered. In a conversation I had with a MnSCU official, I was told that the system would not have gone forward with four all-male teams, but for reasons no one seems able to explain, all-white teams are acceptable.

Go back to the drawing board

The discovery of this lack of balance provides Rosenstone with a chance to slow down and go back to the drawing board. In light of united faculty opposition to the CtF process and the total absence of voices from people of color on half of the implementation teams, it seems it is time to start the process again — but this time to do it with maximum transparency and democracy.

Rosenstone claims he is open to the best ideas. I hope he listens to this one: Start your reform effort again, this time designing your plan in full partnership with faculty, students, staff and Minnesota’s many diverse communities. In the end, these democratic voices will make better partners than McKinsey and Company.

Begin this renewed effort by reflecting on why you moved forward with charting the future for a racially diverse Minnesota with four all-white teams. Challenge all parts of MnSCU to reflect on this same topic, including the different bargaining units. Then put in place reforms to prepare MnSCU campuses for a more diverse student population. Only after you have done this will you be ready to chart the future.

Jeff Kolnick is a professor of history at Southwest Minnesota State University and a former member of the Charting the Future Academic Planning and Collaboration.


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