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Re-imagining Minnesota State — again

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Douglas Allen
A little over a year ago, I wrote a piece suggesting the Minnesota State system consider a different approach to governance — one that allowed for and honored a local voice in governance. I suggested that alternative in part due to the politics inherent in the system’s existing governance structure. Under that structure changes that challenge the status quo have historically been stopped before they got started.

As a consequence, Minnesota State is once again embarking on a strategic planning effort to respond to the changes facing higher education. This time it’s being led by the former interim chancellor who was selected a year ago to lead the system. Hailed as a bridge builder with healthy relationships with faculty, Devinder Malhotra is a thoughtful and student-focused leader who recognizes change is necessary — as he said: “It’s not that we are not good academic institutions, or we are not fully functional, effective institutions, but the question is the rate at which we have to change and the scope at which we have to offer our education has altered dramatically because of the context in which education operates.”

Malhotra understands higher education’s context and how rapidly it’s changing. Some of the change is demographic — baby boomers are retiring in large numbers, secondary enrollment is declining, and the state is becoming more racially diverse. Additionally,  investment in higher education is declining and enrollment is dropping as debt levels skyrocket with student loans making up the bulk of over $1 trillion of debt for 19- to 29-year-olds. And technology (from ready access to content to the impact of artificial intelligence) is bringing changes to both how and what is taught. Some combination of those factors have disrupted other industries from health care to retail — and no one seems to question that surviving requires adapting to that disruption.  

In contrast to that stance, it’s the position of the leadership of the state’s faculty that the only acceptable adaptation is one which doesn’t change the status quo — at least in any way that significantly affects them. It’s portrayed in different ways, but as Matthew Filner, a faculty member critical of past efforts to adapt to the future, said: “I’ve always been deeply concerned that what they’re pushing basically is a degree without any learning. … I suspect, based on the past and based on who’s doing the work, that this is going to be maybe a more artfully advanced version of ‘Charting the Future’” [the previous effort to adapt to the challenges facing Minnesota State].

It’s worth noting that Malhotra’s critics aren’t saying he’s mistaken about the changing context of higher education. Instead the response plays on people’s fears — vague claims that the system would issue degrees that don’t require students to learn or that those involved want the system to become nothing but workforce development for corporations. It’s also argued the system, i.e., the status quo, would be fine if the state would just contribute more money.  

Any basic logic course teaches students to beware the argumentum ad hominem, an argumentative strategy where one avoids a discussion of the topic by instead attacking the character or motive or some other attribute of the person making the argument. And yes, I suspect faculty are well aware of that logical fallacy. And yes, all debate about the process used to create the previous effort and the ideas it generated aside, as a tactic, rightly or wrongly, it brought Charting the Future to a standstill.

Keeping in mind the current reimagining process isn’t due to conclude for several months and no specific changes have been proposed, it’s disheartening to see this argument surfacing. What would happen if naysayers suspended judgment for just a few months and assumed that the Board of Trustees, the advisory group, the chancellor and the leadership of the colleges and universities are honestly trying to create a sustainable state system of higher education designed to meet the evolving needs of learners? Would pulling in the same direction — even for a short time — produce enough innovation to enable the system to adjust to meet the challenges facing them?

I don’t know the answer to that question. I do know that if the system cannot work together in support of a shared purpose, any effort to find workable solutions will fail. In the meantime, if students continue to make different decisions about where to enroll, and even whether they should enroll (enrollment is down nearly 5 percent over the last few years) the complaints about who is leading this effort will be moot.

Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen has predicted that as many as half of all colleges will close in 10 years. That claim has been widely challenged, but it’s difficult to argue that the current business model, which requires growing enrollment and tuition rates and increasing state support, isn’t realistic or sustainable.

It’s clear there is no single solution to higher education’s challenges, but it’s time to begin to test some alternatives that challenge the status quo. Fear of change and the emotion that surrounds it is understandable. But now, when higher education should be promoting democracy, encouraging respectful debate, nurturing innovation and entrepreneurship, advancing science and technology and educating the resilient leaders the world needs, it’s time to give change a chance.

Douglas Allen is an independent consultant and facilitator focusing on community leadership, strategic planning and organizational culture. He retired in 2017 after 36 years of teaching and administrative experience in higher education, his last 14 years as the President of Ridgewater College.

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