Groucho Marx glasses on their faces, a dozen students stood in front of the fine arts building at Inver Hills Community College on Thursday, telling passersby about plans to overhaul the state's system of colleges and universities.
The big nose and fuzzy eyebrows were a cheesy caricature of system Chancellor Steven Rosenstone, who bears a resemblance to Marx. The students' posters spoofed the statewide presentations the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system has used to solicit suggestions for the overhaul.
But behind the funny glasses and mockups lie real worries about what the overhaul will do to colleges. The small group is part of a revolt by students and faculty against "Charting the Future," the administration's plan to revamp the system to make it more efficient and effective.
Rosenstone envisions a network of innovative campuses with affordable degrees that land students good jobs. But many faculty and students fear MnSCU would become a system of stripped-down diploma factories that crank out workers for Minnesota industry.
In response to such criticism, Rosenstone has said he wishes he'd been clearer in some of his communication with faculty and students. But he said they're well represented in overhaul talks, and that many of the complaints he has seen in media reports don't match what he's heard in private.
"This is the most engaged, open, consultative process that the system has ever engaged in," he said.
The big question is how the reforms that emerge would change life on campus.
How it shakes out will affect the majority of the state's college and university students. MnSCU is the largest provider of higher education in the state, serving 410,000 students. Two out of three Minnesotans who earn an undergraduate degree or certificate attend one of its schools — and 80 percent of graduates remain in the state after graduation.
That heightens the stakes to professors such as Ted Gracyk of Minnesota State University - Moorhead.
"We educate the teachers, the police officers, the social workers" of the state, said Gracyk, a professor of philosophy and president of the Moorhead Faculty Association.
Under Charting the Future, he said, "the potential for change is enormous."
The heart of the plan is its call for campuses to stop competing with each other for the same students — and instead work together so they could offer a better education at less cost. It's a call similar to the one that formed MnSCU almost 20 years ago, when lawmakers united separate university, community- and technical-college systems in the hope that they would operate more smoothly and efficiently as one system.
That hasn't entirely happened, and Charting the Future concludes that by streamlining operations and injecting more consistency into the system, MnSCU can make it easier and cheaper for students to earn their degrees.
"Charting the Future is all about creating a better education for our students," Rosenstone said.
Under the plan, students could transfer credit effortlessly between schools, he said. They could receive more consistent advising throughout their college careers. Those who could prove they already understand a subject could receive academic credit for that — and not have to take a class on it again.
"We need to make sure that when a student starts at, let's say, Century College, and transfers to Metro State, that that's a smooth pathway — no credits are lost — and that there's continuity in the course of their program," he said.
Rosenstone said students recently told him they wished that if a course they wanted was already full at the college where they were registering, the website would show them other campuses that offered it — and let them immediately enroll there.
Others asked him for a single, guaranteed admissions process for qualified students who wanted to start at a two-year college and transfer later on to a university, he said. Some wished one adviser could work with them throughout their college careers — even if they attended more than one campus.
"Those are all things I think we can do if we work together a little differently," Rosenstone said.
Along the way, he said, faculty and administrators could put their heads together to find ways to graduate more lower-income and minority students, drive down costs, and educate students better. That could be through the use of technology, more advanced teaching methods or more hands-on learning.
"We've got to think creatively about the classroom of the future," Rosenstone said.
But MnSCU professors say higher student performance, greater affordability and smarter use of technology are basic principles everyone could get behind.
"Who's against mom and apple pie?" Gracyk said.
But how MnSCU might try to achieve those goals worries many faculty members and students. System administrators haven't yet completed details of the overhaul, but the wording of some of the suggested strategies has raised suspicions.
When the plan stresses that campuses need to "collaborate, coordinate or align," many faculty members fear that is another way of saying that campuses will operate according to a central-office formula controlled by system leaders.
"We believe we students [and not businesses] are the customer. We're buying our education."
Professors and many student leaders worry that under Charting the Future, campuses would slowly homogenize education, trimming the variety of liberal-arts offerings and focusing too much on what students need to accomplish to earn jobs after graduation. To cut costs, they say, the system would enlarge class sizes and herd students toward an increasing number of online courses, whose impersonal nature would make it difficult for lower performers to succeed.
"It's called the McDonaldization of higher education," said Vicky Brockman, faculty association president at Southwest Minnesota State University.
Some fear that in the name of efficiency and market demand, MnSCU would close programs on some campuses or relocate them across the state. That's especially worrisome to some students and faculty in greater Minnesota, who wonder whether the central office would divert resources to campuses in the metropolitan Twin Cities area, where demand for degrees is expected to grow.
That, they say, could cut both faculty jobs and the choices students have at campuses in other parts of the state.
"I'm from Duluth," said Damon Kapke, a Lake Superior College English instructor and faculty union leader. "I'm in one of those corners. I'm concerned about that."
Although there is growing concern across the nation for better job placement of graduates, one of the greatest concerns of many students and faculty is that business leaders will have too great an influence on curricula. Faculty and students point to the plan's call for campuses to align courses and services to student demand — "as well as to regional and state workforce needs."
"Who is the customer?" asked Edward Conlin, vice president of the Winona State University Student Senate, who serves on one of the overhaul's implementation teams. "That's a huge question. We believe we students [and not businesses] are the customer. We're buying our education."
Rosenstone said he doesn't know where critics are getting their ideas.
"If those were things that Charting the Future was really about, I'd be concerned, too," he said. "But none of those are things that are in the document. ... This is about protecting our ability to serve students across the state of Minnesota. This is about protecting the quality of our academic programs."
Students and instructors say they wouldn't be so wary of the outcome if they trusted Rosenstone.
Faculty members say they're suspicious of his sudden announcement earlier this month that the state would mediate their dispute — an offer they rejected. They and student leaders point to the MnSCU system's decision to give Rosenstone a contract extension and spend $2 million to hire a private overhaul consultant — neither of which happened with formal board approval — as signs that the chancellor hasn't been above board in his dealings.
Rosenstone acknowledged that he could have handled the overhaul better.
"I think I could have communicated differently, and earlier, about the work that [the consultant] did," he said. "I didn't handle that communication well at all."
Rosenstone already has carried out a number of changes requested over the past several months. But some faculty leaders say they want to scrap the current committees or at least have talks to "reset" the situation.
Union leaders say faculty contracts require campus presidents to run most academic changes by them. They think they'll be able to wield more influence at the campus level than in current statewide committee proceedings.
Your support matters.
You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.