Others’ Opinion: Change isn’t always easy at MnSCU

Published 8:35 am Friday, June 13, 2014

—St. Paul Pioneer Press

Change is hard on organizations. For their leaders, pushback comes with the territory.

That’s so at Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, where Chancellor Steven Rosenstone last week received a harsh critique from a faculty union, the Pioneer Press reported, as the system’s board of trustees prepares for its annual review of his performance.

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The chancellor, however, has MnSCU trustees’ support, and his work in a drive to increase collaboration and boost efficiency across the system deserves backing beyond the boardroom.

As Rosenstone advances a sweeping “Charting the Future” blueprint for system-wide change, he “has operated under the clear direction of the board,” Chair Clarence Hightower told us.

The chancellor has been visionary in moving MnSCU forward and has “helped all of Minnesota understand what we need to do to create a better future for our students, their families and their communities,” Hightower said.

The plan strives to prepare the system — one of the nation’s largest — to serve students in a permanent environment of scarcer resources, continuous change and increasing expectations. MnSCU has 31 colleges and universities on 54 campuses in 47 communities.

The union, the Inter Faculty Organization, which represents educators at the seven state universities, has been negotiating with MnSCU for more than a year.

Its memo lists a “Bill of Particulars” that takes issue with budgeting and other operations under Rosenstone, and criticizes him for being “out of touch with legislative and public sentiments on higher education priorities.”

It says he based his strategy on desires of the Chamber of Commerce, rather than the needs of students and their parents. The union previously questioned Rosenstone’s belief that campuses need to be more responsive to the workforce needs of Minnesota employers to stay relevant, the Pioneer Press’ Mila Koumpilova noted.

The memo also mentions the handling of two recent high-profile cases: payroll problems at Metropolitan State University and the firing and rehiring of a Minnesota State Mankato football coach who was accused and then cleared of child pornography.

“We want to work together for the benefit of the citizens of Minnesota and for our students,” Union president Nancy Black told us, but the chancellor “does not listen to faculty voices.”

The union’s major issue at this point “is that the chancellor has not learned how to work in a union environment,” Black said. “We have something called shared governance, and this chancellor does not believe in shared governance. He hasn’t been operating that way, and it causes a lot of conflict.”

Earl Potter, president of St. Cloud State University and of MnSCU’s executive committee, told us Rosenstone has worked to make sure all voices are included in the Charting the Future process.

The initiative calls for working together more effectively as a system to plan academic programming across the state, Potter explained. “The union fears that will mean a stronger central office that tells us what to do. The chancellor says that is not his intent, and the union doesn’t believe him. That is essentially what the conflict is about.”

In meeting with us last fall, Rosenstone made it clear that more collaboration doesn’t mean more control from the system office in downtown St. Paul. We take him at his word — but also observe that, because of inertia, it takes the application of outside force to change a body’s course. That needn’t translate into undue central control, but central influence is necessary.

“All the parties want the right things for Minnesota, but we differ,” Potter observed. Adversarial relationships from the bargaining table “color the conversation about doing the hard change work.”

The conversation at MnSCU is an important one in a state that must acknowledge both changing demographics and the limits on public resources.

In organizations, it’s easier to do things the way they’ve always been done. In addition to the strong leadership it has, Charting the Future will need broad support to overcome the inertia of the status quo.

—St. Paul Pioneer Press