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 Our 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 Our 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 Our 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 Our 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 Our 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 Our 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 Our 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.