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Rosenstone on MnSCU’s goals and challenges: a Q&A with new chancellor

On Aug. 1, a month after the University of Minnesota got a new president, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system welcomed Steven Rosenstone as its fourth chancellor.

A political scientist, Rosenstone’s deep CV includes a decade as dean of the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts and, most recently, four years as the U of M’s vice president for scholarly and cultural affairs. Impressive as his achievements in those jobs were — he is credited with revamping the experience undergrads have at the U — his new job is, quite simply, enormous.

Steven Rosenstone
Courtesy of MnSCU
Steven Rosenstone

A public network of 31 two- and four-year colleges and five universities, MnSCU serves lifelong learners in need of everything from a certificate in a high-tech precision skill to a traditional liberal arts or graduate degree — plus Minnesota employers in need of trained workers. Just to make that task a hair tougher, its nearly half a million students are spread across the state.

Since his appointment Feb. 1, Rosenstone has been literally traversing Minnesota, learning exactly what he got himself into. He took time off recently to describe the experience. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

MinnPost: I hear you’ve logged 4,000 miles visiting MnSCU schools since your appointment. Do you have a strategy for surviving?

Rosenstone: Making sure that there’s time for reflection between each of the visits, to really digest the conversations. And I’ve got to tell you, it’s been inspiring. The work that our faculty is doing, the partnerships that exist with business, the students we’re serving, the value that we provide the communities and the passion the communities are engaged with in the colleges and universities is absolutely inspiring. 

MP: What are some of the most interesting or surprising things you’ve seen?

SR: The variety of programs and the variety of needs that exist to serve students [such as] a precision manufacturing program or the kind of programs that are in place to make sure nurses and medical technicians are properly trained.

There is one program that’s responsible for training students to use earth-moving equipment, so [for] all the roads we build in the state, all the excavation that’s done, we’re training students on very very large pieces of equipment how to do that. There’s a huge variety of programs, a huge variety of needs and a huge variety of infrastructure necessary to deliver high-quality training to those students.

The other thing I’m impressed with is how big the state is. I haven’t seen all 84,000 square miles, but the distances are huge. So, for example, Sue Collins, who is president of the Northeast Higher Education District and is responsible for five colleges, covers 13,000 square miles up on the range. Mid-west, we have a president responsible for five colleges covering 17,000 square miles.

If you spend your entire life in the Twin Cities, you just don’t have a sense of how hard it is to ensure that we’re providing access to students across the state until you get out there and see it firsthand.

I think also some people have a stereotype of people going to college — that it means picking up, getting in the car, driving 300 miles and living in a dorm. Many of our students have families, many of our students are older and many are working part time or full time in addition to going to school.

The idea that they can drive 300 miles round trip every day to go to school or that they can pick up and spend $26,000 a year to live in dorms to go to college is a misunderstanding of the students that we need to serve for Minnesota to have the workforce it needs. 

MP: That’s a tidy segue to one of the questions that I wanted to ask you. You, more than many academic leaders, must think about the needs of the state and its work force. What needs to happen to keep MnSCU responsive?

SR: There are two issues here. One is what do we need to do better and what do we need to scale up to meet Minnesota’s work force needs? We need substantially more of the work force to have completed some postsecondary education. 

The estimates are that by the year 2018, 70 percent of Minnesota’s work force will have to have had some postsecondary education. And 85 percent of all the jobs that will be created between today and 2018 will require some postsecondary education, with over half those jobs requiring not bachelor’s degree or above, but rather a certificate or a two-year degree.

Now, for that to happen we need to be serving more students. We need to take more students who have traditionally not gone on to higher education, ensure that they’re college ready and they are meeting the finish line of that certificate or degree program. 

That’s going to demand much more of us going forward. And by the way, if we don’t meet those objectives then Minnesota won’t have the work force it needs to compete in this economy.

Second, it also means to me that the quality of that education has to be better than ever before. Preparing graduates to be leaders in every sector of Minnesota’s economy means a whole lot more going forward than it did in the past. It means much greater creative and innovative skills. It means much better familiarity with technology.

It means a better [willingness] to reinvent yourself three or four times over the coarse of your lifetime as careers and professions change. It means the ability to work with great agility across cultural boundaries so that you’re able to work with a much more diverse Minnesota, but also ensure that our companies are able to act in a global economy in a way that other companies around the world will be doing.

All of this is going to demand much more of us — and, again, we have to deliver. Otherwise Minnesota is going to have a problem.

MP: You arrived in Minnesota in the fall of 1996 to be dean of the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts. Yet my guess is that the popular view of the system that you’re now the head of is very pragmatic and skill based and technical.

SR: That’s certainly part of what we do, but we also have seven universities. One of the beauties of the architecture of this system is that we’ve put three pieces together that really need to be working hand in glove: the technical schools, the community colleges and the seven universities around the state.

What that means is there’s an easy pathway for students to begin in one of those institutions and finish in another one. For example, there are many students who might best begin in a two-year community college. We have easy pathways for them to then go on if they want to have a bachelor’s education in one of our four-year institutions.

It also means that over the course of one’s lifetime or the course of one’s career, there’s an easy way to ladder your degrees. For example, nurses and medical technicians may complete a two-year degree, go out and work, and then when it’s time for them to complete a higher level of training we have a place within our four-year institutions to do that. 

The other thing it allows is for us to put some of the pieces together between two-year and four-year institutions. Let me give you an example. You go to St. Cloud.  We have a community and technical college and we have St. Cloud State University.

The engineering program at St. Cloud State uses some of the facilities at St. Cloud Community College to ensure that the engineers that are being trained at the university are not just getting trained on the theoretical stuff of mechanical engineering, but they’re actually able to go to the equipment on the shop floor and understand the manufacturing process.

So putting those pieces together can actually create a far more powerful education than if the pieces were simply in different buckets unconnected to each other. 

MP: The legislature has thrown a budget cut and a tuition increase cap at you at the same time. Does that pose a dilemma for you?

SR: Yes and no. The budget cut is severe. It’s a 10.6 percent cut in this biennium, but let me try to put that in a little broader perspective. If you look between the year 2000 and 2012 and correct for inflation, we have had a 48 percent cut in the amount of state support provided per full-time student we serve — a 48 percent cut.

That’s humongous. It’s having profound consequences in our ability to make good on this need that Minnesota has for a more educated work force. It’s putting tremendous pressure on programs, from the technology that we need in our labs and in our classrooms, and it’s forcing a lot of hard thinking about how to protect the quality of what we’re doing and to figure out how to do it with substantially less state support.

The cap that you mentioned is a 4 percent cap that’s only in the second year of the biennium, 2013, and only applies to the two-year colleges. It does not apply to the four-year universities. I am going to do my very best to come in below that. 

Our objective is to ensure that our colleges and universities remain the most cost-effective higher education alternatives available in the state of Minnesota. We cannot protect our mission of access, we cannot advance the need of more learners in higher education if the entire cut that the state has imposed is now put back on families. It just doesn’t work.

As a matter of principle, I believe strongly, and our board of trustees believes strongly, that the board is best equipped to make judgments about what tuition ought to be. Clearly there is a consultative process with the Legislature and the executive branch over that, but there are a whole lot of details that one needs to think about before they make a decision about what tuition should be.

If you tell me with 100-percent precision what Minnesota’s economy is going to look like a year from now, I would probably be a little more comfortable with deciding today what tuition ought to be, but given the uncertainty of the last couple of years and the uncertainty of the last couple days and weeks, I really am quite nervous about projecting out 13 months. 

MP: Anything that you wish I had asked?

SR: One thing that I’ve been talking a lot about, and many of the colleges are asking about, is the opportunity for collaboration between our systems of higher education. I have been working very closely with [University of Minnesota President] Eric Kaler to think about a plan for higher education for the state.

We need to forge a higher-education strategy that will meet the work force needs of the state and that will ensure that we’re addressing some of the challenges that Minnesota confronts. The plan puts the best parts of both of these systems together in a far more powerful way.

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