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MnSCU: It’s time for real change

Trustees need to do more than merely express rhetorical commitments to the campuses. They need to work with campuses, legislative leaders, and the governor to examine structural changes.

Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) or “Minnesota State,” as it has recently renamed itself, is in need of real change. It does not need rebranding gimmicks, new statewide strategic planning, or re-alignments that ignore campus input. As Minnesota State’s June report on financial sustainability said, “Houston: the system has a problem.” I would agree, except I would clarify that the system “is” the problem. It’s time to face the reality that the broad authority granted to it by the Legislature in 1991 has left the Minnesota State trustees with little formal allegiance, and no accountability, to the campuses they were appointed to govern.

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Minnesota State is led by 15 trustees appointed by the governor and is run by a central bureaucracy comparable in size to the largest of our state universities. The trustees possess overall governing authority, as well as the authority to set academic policy. Bit by bit, this authority has imposed uniformity on how the campuses are managed and increasingly on how the courses are taught, with rare, if ever, meaningful input from campus communities. From a campus perspective, the irony is not lost on Minnesota State’s June report recommending that we “act like an enterprise” to align and streamline curriculum after it has spent 20 years making it more difficult for us to be nimble and responsive to our educational markets.

Distinct campus missions

Darrell Downs
Darrell Downs

Indeed, a highly decentralized system of colleges and state universities can present challenges. But it is also true that such common-sense goals for coordination and efficiency must be balanced with the distinctive statutory educational missions of the state’s colleges and universities. These distinct missions allow the campuses to build the quality that attracts and retains our students. If we continue along a path toward common curricula, common course content, and common branding, we will create a system with fewer academic options for students, and fewer reasons for our students to attend our colleges and universities.

Minnesota State’s June report reflects the same tin ear to the value of campuses. It even takes aim on labor agreements so it can more easily create “dedicated administrative structures.” Campuses and their instructional spending are apparently viewed as the key cost drivers, while the administrative side of the house is somehow in need of protection. Pardon me for complaining that a system devoted to education now views administration as a fixed cost, while spending on instruction is viewed as a variable cost. This is the same wrong-headedness that led to the MnSCU faculty rejecting the Chancellor’s Charting the Future plan in 2015, and the state university faculty’s votes of no confidence in his leadership.

Minnesota State trustees need to do more than merely express rhetorical commitments to the campuses. They need to work with campuses, legislative leaders, and the governor to examine structural changes. Unless the scope of the trustees is narrowed and limited to particular statewide functions, and unless the trustees are held accountable to the campuses in some way, there is no reason to think that campuses won’t be swallowed whole by the Minnesota State bureaucracy.

The 2010 Report of the Legislative Auditor offered useful, albeit probably neglected at the time, insights. The report documented disturbing trends in MnSCU’s System Office expansion of services information technology (IT) and spending on consultants. It noted that while administrative spending per student was presented by MnSCU to be low compared to other states, the audit found that it depends on how you count administrative spending, and if all administrative supports are counted, MnSCU ranks well above other states in spending per student.

So who among the trustees is charged with protecting the instructional priorities on the campuses?

Here are a couple of ideas.

Campuses must be represented among trustees

In order to give the campuses a meaningful voice in shaping the future of their campuses, they need to be represented among the trustees. The board is the ultimate decision-making body, and currently there is no one on the board that is accountable to anyone but the governor. Of the 15 trustee seats, why not designate five seats for each of the institution-types? Five trustees could be expected to represent the technical colleges, five for the community colleges, and five for the state universities. Contrary to the current situation, where the trustees’ only real direction comes from the office of the governor or their own speculations about the Legislature, this could give the trustees an incentive to help ensure that state initiatives help, rather than harm, the quality of education on our campuses.

Furthermore, if there are indeed a limited number of functions that make sense for a statewide board of trustees, why not limit its authority to those functions? The 2010 Legislative Audit noted that in 23 states, their higher education governing bodies serve as coordinating boards possessing a limited range of functions, such as budget review, strategic planning, and data analysis. It would even be possible to establish different functions based on the expressed needs of the institutions — something that we’ve learned in Minnesota is important as our technical colleges, community colleges, and state universities have profoundly different needs.

There are many ways to restructure. The MnSCU centralizing experiment has failed not because it hasn’t produced a more uniform system. It has failed because uniformity is just a bad idea for higher education. Why not set the new Minnesota State and the next chancellor in a direction that stands a reasonable chance of success? The path we’re on today does not. 

Darrell Downs, Ph.D., is the president of the WSU Faculty Association and a professor in political science and public administration at Winona State University.


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