MnSCU wants dramatic increase in campus cooperation, consistency


Minnesota State Colleges and Universities trustees have approved potentially sweeping changes to how their colleges and universities do business.

Leaders of the 31 MnSCU schools are being told to stop competing so much with each other for students -- and start cooperating to an extent not seen before.

They'll need to rethink the academic programs they offer. And they need to be more consistent in how they accept prior credit and handle online education.

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It's a view that has rattled some university faculty, who fear it will lead to too much centralization of education and a stifling of innovation.

"We're walking a fine line," said St. Cloud State University President Earl Potter, who served on one of the working groups behind the report. Colleges need to react quickly to an increasingly tough market, "but we don't want to raise the specter of change too sharply."

Although MnSCU colleges and universities do cooperate in some areas, the report above -- called Charting the Future  -- says campuses still engage in "internal competition" with each other and don't coordinate much with others in the system:

"As a result ... there is variance among like-titled courses and programs. This poses challenges for undergraduate students transferring to a different college or university within the system."

To combat that, the report suggests that campuses:

  • Work more closely to coordinate what programs campuses offer.

  • Agree on ways to provide students with credit for prior learning and skills in which they've already proven themselves competent.

  • Expand the use of online courses and innovative technology in education -- and use it more consistently among campuses.

Other priorities include restructuring administration to make it more efficient; becoming the state leader in providing workplace training programs; and improving the increasing student performance -- especially among students of color.

MnSCU officials hope such changes will ultimately make it easier for students to find the education they need -- especially in the fields prized by state employers -- and to get their degrees faster and for less money.

Workforce development has been a priority for Chancellor Steven Rosenstone. Last year MnSCU helped survey employers statewide so that MnSCU could change curriculum to better meet their needs.

MnSCU officials also think the changes will make MnSCU more efficient -- and improve education -- because officials will work together statewide on the same issues instead of reinventing the wheel at each campus.

Talk of increased cooperation isn't new.

But Potter said this is the first time MnSCU has the data and technology necessary to figure out what's needed where -- and to carry out necessary changes.

He also said the stakes are the highest they've been. Legislators and the public are calling for changes such as these, and MnSCU campuses are facing increased competition from for-profit colleges and other sources.

"The threats are real," Potter told trustees at today's monthly board meeting. "We have to address them."

But some unionized faculty remain concerned.

The first draft of the proposals, which came out this summer, called for one statewide academic plan that would consider things such as campus mergers, the elimination of some programs and the relocation of others.

To some faculty, the original draft put too much decision-making power in St. Paul.

Faculty members were also concerned that MnSCU will focus two much on Twin Cities campuses at the expense of colleges in other towns. The original draft said MnSCU campuses are in outstate Minnesota, yet demand for education is greatest in the Twin Cities.

"There has been concern that the report is too 'metrocentric," said Kevin Lindstrom, president of the union representing faculty at two-year colleges.

And university faculty are worried that the report focuses too much on technical education and may neglect the liberal arts.

Last month, Rosenstone called for a revision. He assured faculty that MnSCU was not seeking further centralization, and was committed to outstate campuses and the liberal arts.

The final draft explicitly states that it does not call for more centralization. It also scales back on language that implied centralization, dropping reference to a statewide academic plan, and eliminating specific proposals such as merging campuses, eliminating programs and relocating others.

"Although we offer suggestions about ways to advance each recommendation, by no means do these ideas comprise implementation plans."

Instead, the report proposes that campuses "develop a collaborative and coordinated academic planning process."

Still, some university faculty remain nervous.

Nancy Black, president of the union for university professors, said the final report doesn't say who'll be calling the shots, and that "there's a lack of trust" among some faculty toward the administration.

She told the trustees the report endorses "a one-size-fits-all model," and doesn't acknowledge the different missions of various campuses.

In the coming months, MnSCU and campus officials will be working out just what changes to make and how to carry them out.

Potter says changes could take effect over the next few years.

Rosenstone is expected to give an update in January.