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It’s time to fix the MnSCU system — openly and with autonomy

Darrell Downs
Darrell Downs

The icy standoff between campus faculty and the leadership of the Minnesota State College and Universities (MnSCU) needs to end — but let’s first get to the root of the problem.

MnSCU has been leading an experiment to change campuses into quasi-private franchises for years. Producing more degrees more quickly and more cheaply has been its hallmark. Never mind that the quality of the education may suffer when change is put in the hands of political appointees and corporate advisers.

To gild the lily of misguided privatization, MnSCU also pays for multimillion-dollar consultants, such as McKinsey and Co., to manage system planning, regardless of faculty and student objections. And it’s only a matter of time before we learn how much is being spent on consultants to “rebrand” the system. 

The crux of the problem is this: Without the campus autonomy necessary to meet student needs, no amount of “change management” and corporate “rebranding” will help protect and enhance the quality of higher education.      

We need an open conversation about change

Students, faculty, staff and taxpayers deserve an honest and open conversation about change. This conversation could start by recognizing that even good ideas can come at an untenable price. No public funds have been appropriated for systemwide planning, so isn’t it reasonable to know what is being sacrificed by pursuing new directions? When sacrifice gets down to the campus level, it could mean fewer programs, fewer majors and minor degree options and fewer options for students; ultimately it means less freedom to serve our students. 

Some have hopes that private mediation is the answer; that, too, is short-sighted. The problem of disappearing autonomy for the campuses is not a small issue suited for secret meetings. MnSCU’s leadership is facing an epidemic of distrust and withering support. 

This distrust was first made public when the Inter Faculty Organization (IFO) presented nearly 40 specific complaints about Chancellor Steven Rosenstone’s leadership to the chancellor himself and to the MnSCU Board of Trustees in June of 2014. Lacking meaningful responses to these complaints, the seven state university faculty associations cast votes of “no confidence” in Rosenstone’s leadership.  The IFO and the two-year college faculty union, along with one student association, pulled out of the chancellor’s Charting the Future initiative, and two student senate organizations voted “no confidence” in the chancellor. 

Indeed, this type of change isn’t what MnSCU leaders were looking for, but it is clear that faculty and many students have gone to unusual lengths to curtail centralized management of the campuses.   

Faculty know how to change

Rosenstone recently said something that is painfully true, “. . . change is uncomfortable.”  And yet the questions that should have been asked (but weren’t) are: Why is it so hard today for MnSCU leadership to change in a way that supports the campuses? And does MnSCU need to be reminded that campuses already know how to change? 

The IFO was the first statewide organization two years ago to support a tuition freeze. This occurred at the same time that MnSCU leadership and the chancellor were urging the legislature to raise tuition, which would have added to the state’s already staggering level of student debt. The IFO worked successfully with key legislative leaders, such as Rep. Gene Pelowski, to stop MnSCU’s raise-tuition-first strategy. This was meaningful change. 

Meaningful change also happens on campus. Campus faculty and staff are continually redirecting their scarce resources to meet the needs of students.  Academic programs are changed and new courses are created and modified through careful and frequent deliberation. New partnerships are built with businesses, governments, and non-profits, and new directions for the universities are developed on a regular basis. Rosenstone is correct in saying that change is hard, but he is wrong to imply that it’s not already happening. 

It’s time for real change

Real change should empower, not weaken, campuses. We’re accustomed to demoralizing change that reduces the capacity of the campuses. It would be more helpful to reduce the footprint of the state’s higher-education bureaucracy. 

Real change would also allow the campuses to say “no” to initiatives that don’t fit. What works in St. Cloud might not work in Bemidji, and what doesn’t work in Winona just might work in Moorhead, and so on. Ignoring the distinctive needs of our campus communities was an important and early misstep with the Charting the Future initiative. 

In the end, it’s time to put everything on the table and put the focus back on the campuses and the classrooms where it belongs.

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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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/05/2014 - 07:10 pm.

    This is a problem

    that goes back at least 50 years — it was here when I started at (the then) Mankato State College 45 years ago.
    The State College System was a creature of the legislature — micromanaged to make up for the U of M’s independence.
    I see no sign that this has changed; MnSCU is still viewed by the legislature as a credit hour factory, with ‘serious’ education being the province of the U. There are still no PhD’s awarded by MnScu; just a couple of Ed.D’s which don’t command the same respect (and one of them is based in my former department). Support for a real doctorate requires major research facilities and funding, and a much lower student/faculty ratio than MnSCU can support.

  2. Submitted by John Evans on 12/05/2014 - 10:46 pm.

    What are you saying, here?

    1. You say MnSCU wants to “change campuses into quasi-private franchises…” What does that mean, and what’s wrong with it?
    2. MnSCU wants to produce a degree faster and cheaper. That sounds pretty appealing to me, if the degree hits the sweet spot, balancing sufficient rigor with achievability.
    3. Rigor and achievement are the faculty’s responsibility. What does faculty need in order to maintain achievability while improving rigor?
    4. “What works in St. Cloud might not work in Bemidji.” Well, why not? What are you talking about?

    I don’t know what MnSCU’s vision for the system is, and what change Rosenstone is trying to achieve, other than cost-cutting. I also don’t know how that differs from the IFO’s vision for the system.

    Please elaborate.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/06/2014 - 10:04 am.

      Compare the cost

      of private and public universities.
      The point of the state college/university system was to provide affordable education for large numbers of students.
      Privatization would inevitable increase tuition costs (no state support) and increase the pressures to increase enrollments (and thus income) through often misleading advertising. We’re already seeing lawsuits charging that private (often for profit) institutions offer misleading promises of employment and have very low graduation rates.
      The private sector does elite education well — it is less effective with mass affordable cost education.

      One aspect of institutional cost cutting (in MnSCU as well as other systems) is hiring ‘temp workers’ (adjunct faculty) and reducing the number of full time faculty. This lowers labor cost, but reduces the commitment of the faculty to the institution and to the students. Try to make an office appointment with an adjunct faculty member who has a day job and is on campus only a few hours a week to teach a course.
      And of course there are many other aspects of a faculty job that are done by full time faculty but not adjuncts. You talk about responsibility and rigor. As a full time faculty member I served on committees, including the curriculum and personnel committees at both the departmental and college level. This is not a function provided by adjuncts.

      In short cranking out credit hours (not necessarily degrees — see graduation rates) is not the same as education.

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 12/06/2014 - 12:36 pm.

      Its not a new subject

      Nor the commentator’s responsibility to ensure that you are properly informed on a topic that has been discussed for many months across multiple forums.

      • Submitted by Dan Landherr on 12/08/2014 - 08:28 am.

        New forum, new responsibility

        “It is not the commentator’s responsibility to ensure that you are properly informed on a topic that has been discussed for many months across multiple forums”

        It is the commentator’s responsibility if they want to inform to provide details or at least a reference to where details can be located. If I remember my freshman composition the writer is supposed to consider their audience. Who is the audience of this article? It doesn’t appear to be directed toward people already knowledgeable but intended more toward trying to shift opinions of a broader audience. I haven’t seen many articles on MinnPost about this topic. The actual “Charting the Future” documents are woefully short on detail but the goals are admirable. If there is more detail elsewhere please pass the links along. If not, then I would agree that I don’t understand what is bad about getting a degree faster and/or less expensively as long as the rigor is maintained. Those should be goals of our education system. Is the writer advocating for more time consuming and/or expensive degrees?

  3. Submitted by jody rooney on 12/07/2014 - 01:14 pm.

    Couldn’t everyone just read ZAPP the Lightning

    of Empowerment and put it into practice.

    I do think that Mr. Brandon has some excellent points. The first is that MNSCU is like the state park system, one for every neighborhood in the state. And pretty much like the parks it is politically popular to build something new but not to pay to maintain them or operate them. In fact you might get accused of too much government spending.

    It was a mistake to combine technical and academic institutions. Privatization is not the answer given the navel contemplation of some of the nationally know private colleges and risk averse behavior of their graduates you wonder how well they are doing.

    I think a better model would be a military model rather than a business model. Which gives more autonomy to field units or individual institutions. The military seems to survive as a mature institution while corporations may not do as well.

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