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

Without the campus autonomy necessary to meet student needs, no amount of “change management” and “rebranding” will help protect and enhance the quality of higher education.

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. 

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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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