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Stronger Communities, not Centralized Bureaucracy

January 22, 2014 By Matthew Filner, Guest Commentary

Editor’s Note: This second article in a two part series aims to make students, citizens, fellow faculty, staff and other stakeholders aware of the possible higher education and economic policy outcomes that could result if MnSCU fully implements its Charting the Future report.

As discussed in the first part of this series, under a new grand plan, the schools and communities in the Minnesota State Colleges and University system will undergo significant changes that could see, among other alterations, courses of study cut completely, replaced by more taxpayer-subsidized training programs for private industry.

MnSCU serves over 430,000 students at 31 state universities, community and technical colleges in every corner of Minnesota. Its large geographic and economic footprint demands our attention.

In Charting the Future, MnSCU seeks to: “Dramatically increase the success of all learners, especially those in diverse populations traditionally underserved by higher education.” This, of course, is an absolutely essential goal and should be highly prioritized in any higher education initiative. Typically, when an institution wants to improve its work in a particular area, it will look to best practices. That’s why it’s puzzling when the universities within MnSCU that have decades of innovation in this area are ignored.

For example, the institution with 40 years of experience doing exactly this is totally absent from Charting the Future. Metropolitan State University does an outstanding job helping traditionally underserved students succeed in higher education. We have small class-sizes, faculty and advisors who are highly engaged with students, challenging courses that push students to learn critical thinking skills, and supportive programs and offices that catch students when the challenges they face exceed their current capacity. One logical strategy would be to increase the size and scope of Metro State in order to reach these students. Another logical solution would be to support innovative programs throughout our state that will attract a diverse array of students from the Metro area.

Yet the five strategies listed make no mention of the great expertise we have on our campuses in the metro area, and also across the state. The omission is startling, and reflects a deeper and destructive aspect of Charting the Future: the assumption that more centralized, bureaucratized and standardized thinking (even if delivered at remote locations) is always better. This is a recipe for MnSCU growth, not academic success for the underserved.

Moreover, Charting the Future argues: “We must find the balance between honoring our commitment to serve communities across the state and, at the same time, investing where demand is increasing.” This quote is listed along with a series of strategies to replace campus offerings with more online services. It is clear that this strategy involves moving resources from traditional brick-and-mortar campuses to more online delivery mechanisms.

MnSCU’s recent announcement that its first step in implementing Charting the Future is a significant increase in its IT capacity makes this intention crystal clear. While investing in technology as a supplement is appropriate, this strategy obfuscates the tremendous harm that will be done to our communities. Our universities in Bemidji, Mankato, Marshall, Moorhead, St. Cloud, St. Paul, and Winona—not to mention the dozens of community and technical colleges in communities across the state—do more than “serve” the communities in which we are located. These universities and colleges are essential institutions within our communities. The identity and health of these communities are integrally linked to the identity and health of MnSCU institutions. Because Charting the Future shifts resources out of our communities and into MnSCU’s central office, it represents a direct threat to these communities.

The fact is that investment in our local colleges and universities provides an outstanding return on investment for our communities and our state. A recent Wilder Foundation report found the colleges and universities within MnSCU generated about $8.3 billion of economic activity in MN in 2011 on about $550 million of taxpayer investment. Of that, $5.2 billion was in Greater Minnesota college and university communities. Charting the Future will drive down those economic benefits and increase the negative consequences to our university and college communities.

Overall, Charting the Future seeks to create more bureaucracy and more standardization that poses a direct threat to the unique communities and campuses, academic freedom, and the ability of faculty to shape what we know works to provide an extraordinary education. Language within MnSCU increasingly reflects common language among for-profit institutions: administrators talk about “selling more credits” and “maximizing credit-load,” while they work to lower faculty and staff real wages and consolidate institutions in the name of efficiency.

What is lost in this process is the possibility of helping our students become full citizens and dynamic, flexible employees, which requires slow, careful, and conscientious thought about their hopes and dreams for themselves, their families and their communities.

A better approach strengthens communities by investing in them, challenges students by providing diverse and flexible higher order thinking skills, and supports the strengthening of the middle class by keeping tuition low and minimizing centralized administrative costs. Charting the Future builds the central MnSCU bureaucracy. Instead, we should build the capacity of our students and our communities.

-- 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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  • Al Quie says:

    January 27, 2014 at 6:16 pm

    Matthew Filner makes sense to me. Encourage creativity and decisions on the local level.——Al Quie