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MnSCU’s New Plan: Charting Whose Future?

January 15, 2014 By Matthew Filner, Guest Commentary

In the past few years, a reform effort has been advancing that will dramatically alter how Minnesota delivers higher education. The recently adopted report of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU), Charting the Future, articulates this reform vision. It restates many points raised previously in the Itasca Project’s Partnerships for Prosperity. In my view, this reform vision will do substantial harm to higher education in Minnesota.

On first examination, the vision Charting the Future presents seems appropriate, advocating “extraordinary education” and the “most affordable education option” for Minnesota students. Those of us working within the higher education system are committed to ensuring Minnesotans receive an extraordinary and affordable education. We are also committed to reforming MnSCU institutions to improve the student experience and reduce bureaucracy.

Looking closer at the vision in the context of current debates over so-called “workforce development,” administrative actions on our campuses, and negotiating positions for faculty and staff contracts, it is clear that the reform vision has profound and serious negative consequences.

In this first of a two-part series, we’ll examine the negative consequences in detail, and offer a competing vision for the future of higher education in Minnesota.

The first profound shift is who should chart higher education’s future. According to Charting the Future, MnSCU will: “Develop a collaborative and coordinated academic planning process that advances affordability, transferability and access to our programs and services across the state.” Superficially, this sounds reasonable enough—we all want higher education to be affordable, for student credits to transfer easily, and for our programs to be accessible. Digging deeper, however, reveals some troubling strategies. One strategy suggests that we should “align our course and program offerings … to regional and state workforce needs.” In practice, this means that programs that help provide our large corporations with job training programs should be promoted, while programs that don’t directly align with the stated needs of corporate job training programs will be deemphasized and potentially eliminated.

That leads me to wonder what our college campuses will look like when entire fields of study no longer exist. Yes, we want our students’ skills to match available jobs in their communities, but let’s not confuse this with subsidizing companies’ job training programs. Students need to learn a wide variety of transferrable skills both for career advancement and if local employers close up shop or replace workers with technological advancements.

For example, even if a region’s jobs are mainly in manufacturing, students must still study language, culture, society, economics, psychology, politics, or any number of fields not “adequately aligned” with job needs. The recent revelations that Minnesota State University-Moorhead (one of the seven MnSCU state universities) is considering eliminating entire liberal arts departments reflects this dangerous trend.

And even if we were to agree to an “alignment” of business needs and course offerings, what is equally pernicious in Charting the Future is the notion that administrators, whether in the central MnSCU office or on our campuses, should determine what is appropriate curriculum. This recommendation is a direct attack on faculty control of our curriculum, the education equivalent of giving insurance bureaucrats (rather than doctors) the power to decide what procedures a patient needs. It transfers too much decision-making authority from experts on teaching and learning to administrators and corporate leaders in the name of “workforce development.”

According to Charting the Future, MnSCU will: “Work together under new models to be the preferred provider of comprehensive workplace solutions through programs and services that build employee skills and solve real-world problems for communities and businesses across the state.”

Historically, higher education institutions provided students with a broad range of skills for a wide range of jobs. Businesses would invest in employees with job specific training. Corporations are increasingly looking to the public to pay for training, a pernicious corporate welfare system. Our administrators are bending over backwards for corporations driven by profits, rather than supporting communities committed to a healthy middle class and vibrant state. It’s no surprise, then, when the kinds of programs that are deemed “fits” with their “workforce needs” do not focus on higher order thinking skills.

Higher education should certainly prepare our students to be able to compete effectively for the best jobs our state and nation can offer. But the way to do that is broaden rather than narrow the possibilities of our students thinking critically.

It isn’t just students whose capacity and drive to think critically is threatened. According to Charting the Future, MnSCU will: “Redesign our financial and administrative models to reward collaboration, drive efficiencies and strengthen our ability to provide access to an extraordinary education for all Minnesotans.” An extraordinary education for all Minnesotans is absolutely the right goal. But a closer examination of the specific strategies reveals MnSCU seeks to weaken opposition voices and strengthen centralized control.

MnSCU faculty are unionized and our contract determines the size and scope of the “financial model.” Charting the Future seeks to redesign this model to “reward” those faculty who support the recommendations of the report. If a faculty member acts to promote greater centralization and bureaucratization, s/he will be rewarded. Faculty who persist in valuing decentralization, strong communities, and independence of mind will not.

And it isn’t just an idle threat: MnSCU seeks artificially to depress wages under the stated goal of “making college affordable.” One of the common examples Chancellor Rosenstone uses to promote his vision is the savings that results from bulk purchasing—of paper, computers, desks, and other commonly used materials on our college campuses. It makes perfect sense for there to be bulk purchasing. Yet anyone familiar with higher education budgets is well aware that the relative costs of these products pales in comparison to the faculty and staff costs of our institutions. Therefore, the only practical way to reduce costs significantly is to lower labor costs. Relatively low wages and benefits at large institutions puts tremendous downward pressure on wages and benefits throughout our communities. It is simply not the right approach to depress wages at higher education institutions in order to lower the price for corporations to get pre-trained employees. Instead, we should seek high wages and high benefits both on our campuses and for the employees of these corporations. Only such upward pressure on wages and benefits will result in a vibrant middle class and therefore vibrant communities throughout the state.

In Minnesota, higher education has historically served a function of great importance—the place where students learn essential skills of citizenship. Students have learned how to think critically, write persuasively, argue and listen attentively. These skills are essential to a well-functioning democracy. In the quest to provide more efficiencies to meet the “needs” of our workforce, Minnesotans need to pay attention to what is being crowded out: the development of our citizens throughout the communities of our state.

 

Matthew Filner is a Political Science Professor and chair of the Social Science Department at Metropolitan State University. His views do not necessarily represent the views of his employer.

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6 Comments:

  • Nicholas Tampio says:

    January 15, 2014 at 11:56 am

    Great piece, Professor Filner. It’s short-sighted to replace the liberal arts with vocational training. Where will new ideas originate? What talented person will want to move to, or stay in, a place without a vibrant culture? What kind of democratic life will we have when citizens aren’t taught to be curious and thoughtful?

    We need to protect the liberal arts.

    • J. Scott Anderson says:

      January 16, 2014 at 11:27 am

      So many problems with this article.  First, why is it bad that “One strategy suggests that we should “align our course and program offerings … to regional and state workforce needs.” Do students not want to get jobs after college?  All - 100% - of the students I know are in college first and foremost to get a job.  Sorry, but that’s the reality.  You may know some students who don’t seek to get jobs at places other than the local Starbucks, but I do not.  Employers are a stakeholder in higher education.  Just like students, faculty, administrators and the community at large.  You predict - with no evidence - a future where only courses that are essentially part of “job training programs” will be emphasized.  Are you kidding me?  I have been hiring young people right out of college for the past 30 years.  Here is what they are lacking and what we employers need.  1. Writing skills.  Not “business” writing skills.  Plain and simple skills in putting thoughts on paper, using good grammar and clear thinking.  Topic sentences, evidence, conclusions.  Sounds like an English class to me.  More please.  2.  Math skills.  I don’t care what job you are doing, you need basic math competency.  3.  Research skills.  Can we at least agree on this?  English/humanities papers require this so you should be good on this.  4.  Problem solving skills.  This means breaking down bigger issues into smaller ones and tackling them in an organized fashion.  In the last ten years I’ve noticed hirees less and less capable at doing this.  5.  Interpersonal skills - collaboration, leadership, networking abilities, etc.  Not everyone is born knowing how to do this.  Offering courses where teamwork is required, where stepping up by some/all of the team is required, where all the information needed to do a good job is not on the Internet are essential to job success.  All of these things can be offered to students studying in any area - foreign language majors, English majors, Greek literature major, math majors, art history majors, etc.  All decent schools have breadth requirements - make them good.  That’s all we employers are asking.  I couldn’t care less if a student is a German major.  I do care if they didn’t bother take an English/math/computer class while pursuing their studies.  Again, no one is asking for “pre-trained” employees - we are looking to employ students with basic written and spoken English language capabilities, math and computer competency, good teamwork/leadership skills and problems solving experience.  The hyperbole in this article is not helpful to the discussion.

      Second, you say that MNSCU seeks “artificially to depress wages” - what is artificial are non-market based mechanisms (e.g., unions) setting wages. 

      Third, you talk about the universities bending over backward to help corporations and doing nothing to help grow the middle class.  Good jobs are how the middle class is helped.  Preparing students to enter the workforce so they can get good jobs paying good wages is a good thing.  Preparing them to work as baristas because they have no business-relevant skills no matter how bright they are, is a bad thing. 

      Why not join forces? Why not be part of the solution?  Why are there always “two sides” whenever change/reform is sought?  Feels like politics as usual to me - in particular the union protectionism element.  That’s a distraction from the real issue here which is what is taught at places of higher education.

      • Tom Brinkman says:

        January 20, 2014 at 9:02 am

        We absolutely need a mix of both approaches.  Not just one way or the highway.  Both arguments have merit.  But I do think there is a danger for a long term strategic direction that migrates colleges into a “farm club” for industry.  A specific example:  I earned both a B.S and M.S in Aeronautical Engineering at the Univ. of Minnesota in the 1960s.  The technical curriculum was very specific, long, and very tough.  But it included English, history, economics, and a number of other liberal arts electives to round us out.  After a 40 year career in engineering, engineering management, and program management I have found that my most frequently used books have been a dictionary and a thesaurus (I am a reasonably good writer, not a stereotyped techie, and in fact have written a book and co-authored another, both successful).  I fear that we may be moving towards the “farm club” model without an awareness of the importance of a healthy mix.  I rest my case.

        • J. Scott Anderson says:

          January 28, 2014 at 11:20 am

          That’s my point, Tom.  There isn’t a thing about the proposal being put forth by MNSCU that calls for getting rid of English, history, economics, etc. as areas of study.  Not one aspect of their plan calls for this.  If anything, the approach outlined by “the enemy” calls for more English, math, etc to be part of all majors.  You should not be able to graduate from college - in any area of study - without having the basics of math, writing, research and computer literacy.  I have a child majoring in Medieval History with a minor in Greek at a liberal arts college back East.  She was required to take a math class and an English composition class her freshman year; as well as statistics, a life science course, and “research techniques” class (which appears to have been about the study of Google… but that is another story) at some point before graduating.  These are breadth requirements.  She is unlikely to get a job that requires her knowledge of medieval history, but her skills in writing and research and her understanding of at least basic math should make her somewhat more employable (I hope).  Articles like this one make it seem like any interest from industry in higher education is about making them into trade schools.  And that is just not true.  You can slice it however you like it, Mr. Filner, your cause really does seem to be about job protectionism.  Your second part to this series makes that even clearer.

          • Tom Brinkman says:

            January 28, 2014 at 12:19 pm

            Scott,  I reread both your initial comment and mine.  I think we are 95% on the same page.  A point I intended to make, but forgot, was that engineering curriculums are heavily focused on preparation for doing useful work in industry, not just a general breadth experience.  I was aware of this as I worked through my aeronautical engineering studies, and it made sense to me, and it still does.  I am hugely grateful for the liberal arts part of the curriculum.

  • John Vinje says:

    January 21, 2014 at 10:28 am

    I was a student of MNSCU system for several years in the late ‘80’s & early 90’s.  While a student at Winona State, I wrote a position paper on one of their proposals at the time;  it was well received,  not only by faculty at Winona & Rochester, but also by the MNSCU staffers.

    One of the points made in my paper, was very similar to one that Prof. Filner outlines above:  costs at the time were to go up, yet financial aid was to go down;  at the same time, they were proposing another school in the Metro area, when the full potential of the Rochester campus was not being utilized.

    Before I went to Winona, I had been a student at Metro State.