MnSCU and U seek to collaborate

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Administrators at the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system have taken the reality of less money and increasing enrollment as a cue that it’s time to work together.

The University and MnSCU share a mission in educating Minnesotans, but compete for state funding in doing so. President Eric Kaler and Steven Rosenstone, the new MnSCU chancellor, are talking about collaboration as a possible solution.

Blueprints for the collaboration are still in the works, but will likely include eliminating program redundancies between the two systems, closing the achievement gap between minority and white students and making sure Minnesota high school graduates are prepared when they arrive at college.

The two administrators spent at least three hours in meetings already this month, Kaler said.

“If there ever was a time we could afford to have duplication or overlap, it’s not now,” Kaler said in an interview. “We really have to look very, very carefully at all ways to save money — reduce costs; improve efficiency.”

Enrollment increased at MnSCU schools in 2011 for the fifth consecutive year, according to a MnSCU statement. This fall, there are more than 200,000 students at its 31 schools — including St. Cloud State, Mankato State and Winona State universities.

The University of Minnesota’s five campuses have 3,000 more students enrolled full-time than in 2008, according to the Office of Institutional Research.

“I think we’re going to hit [the upper limit],” said Robert McMaster, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education, in response to the University’s decision to increase enrollment by about 1,000 starting in 2012.

 “A lot of it, I think, is driven by concerns about employment and work and creating futures tied to our jobs and careers,” said Larry Litecky, MnSCU’s interim vice chancellor for academic and student affairs.

MnSCU’s technical, community, state colleges and universities will be operating with $545 million in 2012 — only $45 million more than its 1998 funding level, when the system had about 60,000 fewer students.

The state Legislature cut more than $100 million from the University’s budget from 2011 to 2012.

New leadership

There’s been talk of enhancing collaboration since MnSCU schools merged in 1995. The two systems have partnered on technology and educational programs in the past, but new leadership has brought on a new effort.

September marked the beginning of both Kaler and Rosenstone’s first semester in their new jobs, but both are experienced administrators.

Kaler served as provost at Stony Brook University, part of the State University of New York education system.

“[It’s a] 64-campus system with many elements that are similar to MnSCU, so I understand the MnSCU mission and structure,” Kaler said.

Conversely, Rosenstone spent more than a decade at the University, first as dean of the College of Liberal Arts from 1996 to 2007, then as vice president for scholarly and cultural affairs. His appointment to MnSCU chancellor was announced in February.

“He understands how a large, complex research university works,” Kaler said.

They spoke Monday about the importance of higher education to Minnesota economies at a jobs summit held by Gov. Mark Dayton.

Different strokes for different systems

Both Kaler and Rosenstone serve on the P-20 Education Partnership, a group of education, business and government leaders that seeks to integrate and improve Minnesota’s education system from preschool through college.

“MNSCU is focused on workforce development,” Kaler said. “[The University] is the only research institution in the state of Minnesota, and so our focus on research is very clear — on discovery, on innovation, new cures [and] new ways of thinking.”

“I think a lot of [MnSCU’s] education is tied to middle-level technology jobs,” Litecky said. “Our faculty is typically just focused on teaching and learning — they are not being compensated to be researchers or to do community services.”

Some programs — especially at MnSCU schools — look a lot like undergraduate degrees at the University. But their elimination would disservice Minnesotans, Litecky said.

“We probably are teaching more Minnesotans right now than any other time in our history. I don’t think that’s because of unnecessary duplication, I think that’s because of the demand,” he said.

Rosenstone has alluded to the possibility of sharing more facilities, libraries, technology and financial operations with the University.

“I don’t think we have gotten into the weeds enough on those to see what savings could be realized, but I’m very open to those conversations,” Kaler noted.

“I think there will always be some level of competition [for state funds], but I think the lawmakers do differentiate the missions of the two institutions,” Kaler said.

Transfers to the U set to decline

The University has become increasingly selective in its freshman admissions. Its costs have also increased.

Many students, like University sophomore Tom Wilsey, enroll in MnSCU schools with the hope of eventually transferring to the University.

But in mid-October, the University’s Board of Regents announced a plan to decrease the number of transfer students accepted at the University. Admitted freshmen in the new enrollment plan will outnumber transfer students 2:1.

Wilsey spent a year taking generals at Normandale Community College, and a year at St. Cloud State studying journalism before he transferred to the University, where he plans to study communications.

“I always wanted to go to the [University], I just couldn’t afford it,” Wilsey said. He’s a supervisor at a bar downtown and also works as a valet driver to pay for tuition.

Despite the University’s competitive admissions process, he said his classes were comparable at all three schools.

“I don’t think they’re that different. It all depends on the teacher.”