The Free Press, Mankato, MN

June 23, 2013

MnScu plan shakes up education

Why it matters: Demand for education is rising while resources are tight

The Mankato Free Press

---- — A new draft report on the future of the Minnesota State Colleges and University System offers bold suggestions for an educational system that certainly has scattered laboratories of enlightenment but still moves like an aircraft carrier.

Reading through the “Charting the Future” report summary one comes across some of the familiar educational themes like “best education” and “accessible to all” along with “high value” and “affordable.”

The bold and more interesting suggestions come with words like “relevancy” and phrases like “transformational management” and “strong collaborative leadership at all levels.”

MnScu Chancellor Steven Rosenstone commissioned three working groups to come up with suggestions for changing the behemoth educational system with dozens of campuses across the state in communities large and small. Importantly, he asked them to chart the future not from their positions representing a particular college, community or constituency but from the perspective of a “steward” of the entire system.

With such a charge, the hope was that fresh ideas would come forward. The groups delivered that to a reasonable degree. Some of the ideas will shake up the system and will likely be forcefully challenged by individual constituencies that cannot be underestimated. Every college, every community with a MnScu institution will clearly take notice if the draft report is taken seriously by Rosenstone and others.

Three working groups focused on education of the future, the system of the future and the workforce of the future. Former Minnesota State University provost and current president of Winona State University Scott Olson chaired the future of education working group. Joe Opatz, president of Normandale Community College led the system of the future group and Ron Thomas, president of Dakota County Technical College, led the workforce of the future group.

The working groups will take feedback from stakeholders and the public on the draft report and craft a final report to be delivered to Rosenstone in October.

The overall goals for MnScu don’t seem that much different from what they have always been. MnScu schools work to provide students with educations that align with the careers in demand. They are designed to provide broad-based general educations and career training in various forms at reasonable, affordable prices.

Operating more efficiently has always been MnScu’s challenge, and the strategic priority listed as No. 1 addresses better aligning the system’s offerings to meet the needs of the state, workplace and communities by setting forth a master academic and facilities plan.

Action items under that priority include relocating programs, re-designing programs and eliminating duplicative programs. If these ideas were suggested before, they were done so in a relatively low profile manner. That they are included in the first strategic priority suggests MnScu is serious about streamlining and creating a more market-oriented educational system.

Of course, there are plenty of traditional themes in the report like leveraging shared resources and enhancing faculty education and quality and working more closely with business and community partners.

But one needs only look at a map of MnScu campuses to understand the inevitability of duplication. Some campuses are just a few miles apart.

If MnScu should close programs, relocate others and re-design others, facilities will be impacted. That means communities may lose parts or all of MnScu institutions that are considered major employers.

That will not go over easily. And it’s likely the working groups will hear those concerns early and often in their feedback sessions. The group should keep in mind those facilities were built at a time when access to higher education via geography was a priority and and affordable option.

Today, education has to operate like a nimble business, being willing to consolidate production, move closer to markets and provide a better product at a lower price.

It’s time MnScu decided its primary business is education and not community economic development. The “Charting the Future” draft report is bold and will likely shake things up in the ivory towers of MnScu academia and in MnScu towns from Worthington to Bemidji. But it’s time.