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Six months in, MnSCU chancellor readies change, strategy

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Steven Rosenstone
Steven Rosenstone took over as the chancellor of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system in August of 2011.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

When Steven Rosenstone became chancellor of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system almost six months ago, he promised big changes for the system's 31 schools.

Those changes are still in the works, but Rosenstone is offering a hint at what might be in store. Citing tough times, he said potential solutions to the system's challenges include closing campuses, program cuts or having colleges share leaders.

"We need to look at everything," Rosenstone said. "Nothing can be off the table."

But one thing is clear: MnSCU needs a stable, growing source of revenue and must spend it more efficiently.

The state's higher education budget has declined over recent years, and at $605 million is now at the same level as it was in 2002. MnSCU's budget grew from $1.29 billion to $1.9 billion during that same period.

Total enrollment at MnSCU colleges rocketed during that time from 365,000 students to 421,000 students this year. 

To get a sense of where MnSCU is and where it needs to go, Rosenstone has taken months to talk with students, faculty and business leaders. He said he needs a few more months, and more information, before implementing real changes.

By spring, Rosenstone hopes to have a firm plan on what MnSCU should be teaching students to prepare them for work, and where in the state that should be done.  He expects to unveil his next steps by summer.

"Once we get those two questions answered then we can take on the questions of how many programs and how many sites to deliver on those workforce needs," he said.

There's budget savings to be found in adjusting academic offerings, Rosenstone said, but he will leave any changes to individual colleges. 

"The conversation begins with bringing the faculty together to figure out how they can ensure that they have great courses across the entire system for all students," he said.    Rosenstone said those conversations are set to take place on MnSCU campuses starting this April. 

Don Larsson, who heads up a MnSCU faculty union, said professors have helped their schools save money by combining departments and adjusting class offerings, something MnSCU may look at for more savings in the future. 

"There's a lot of this stuff going on already," Larsson said. "From what I understand of the chancellor's plan that's the kind of thing he wants to encourage and it's really something that we're not opposed to."

What professors oppose, Larsson said, is talk of anything that degrades the education they provide, such as increasing class sizes.

Another example of how MnSCU may try to save money is through merging campus functions and leadership.

That happened with Bemidji State University and Northwest Technical College in Bemidji.

Richard Hanson presides over both colleges. Hanson said the two colleges save money by sharing offices and resources, and that could be a good model for the entire MnSCU system.  

"We have achieved some economies of scale," Hanson said. "Some of our backroom functions are shared between the two institutions.  Most of the leadership here on campus spends time over at Northwest Tech. I have office hours over there every week."

Another possibility for change at MnSCU: the system could provide more students the opportunity to earn a four-year degree in the Twin Cities. 

Six of MnSCU's seven state-run universities are outside of the metro area.  Rosenstone has asked them to come up with a plan to offer four-year degree programs to students at Twin Cities community colleges.

"We will have a more robust plan that better meets the needs of the metro area than we're meeting right now," Rosenstone said. "We'll be in a position to start implementing that next year." 

Rosenstone is also discussing academic and financial partnerships with the University of Minnesota and the state's private schools.

As MnSCU moves forward, the cost of tuition is on the mind of students. 

Students want a sense of what tuition hikes they face in the future., said Geoff Dittberner, president of the Minnesota State College Student Association. Since 2002, average tuition and fees at the state's two-year colleges nearly doubled to almost $5,000 a year.

"We're not necessarily saying that tuition should be frozen, but what we've seen over the past 10 years is an increase in tuition that there's no pattern to," Dittberner said.

Rosenstone said he can't offer guarantees on tuition without knowing how much funding MnSCU will receive from the state.