MANKATO — With some help from theater director Paul Hustoles, Minnesota State University president Richard Davenport recently went undercover, he said. 

Disguised as a "grumpy old dad," he cast his assistant Angela as his daughter and went on a campus tour. 

"I bet you didn't even know I was there," he said to faculty and staff Monday. 

After a day as undercover boss, "I didn't pick up on really anything we could improve. What I did pick up was how attentive staff are to our students." 

Praise for faculty and staff filled a convocation speech Monday that announced no new initiatives and touched only briefly on the university's budget woes and recent tensions over Minnesota State Colleges and Universities' long-term planning initiative, Charting the Future. 

As it ramps up for its 2017 sesquicentennial celebration, MSU will continue to focus on existing goals, Davenport said. Staff are still working to make up a $4 million deficit, but "it will take all of MnSCU" to solve the problem of how to fund higher ed. 

In the meantime, Davenport is relying on the university's history of shared governance to keep the campus going strong.

MnSCU as a system was recently called into question for not including faculty in decision making. But at the time MSU Faculty Association President Mary Visser said locally "shared governance .... has resulted in a positive and productive working environment, a relatively stable enrollment and a good financial footing." 

"We know the form of shared governance is the 'secret sauce" that makes it work so well," Davenport said Monday.

A combination of student success rates, faculty awards, accreditations and "market indicators" show that MSU is excelling in its role as MnSCU's flagship institution, he added. 

Of course, "we can't live up in the sky all the time," Davenport said. The university still needs to work on increasing enrollment and improving retention rates. 

To combat an expected 2 percent drop in high school graduates, the university continues to focus on marketing to international students and offering options for extended and continuing education, he said. 

If MSU increases its freshman retention rate by 10 percent — it's currently about 75 percent — and sophomore retention rates by another 10 percent, the university's budget issues would not be as severe, he said. 

Regardless, student costs are likely to increase. If MSU plans on offering the same quality of education to students, Davenport said "it seems evident student tuition will have to climb some." 

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Jessica here, doing some coffee-fueled reporting for the Mankato Free Press. My beat? Education, colleges, LEARNING. Feel free to contact me with questions, comments and story ideas.