A welcome restart for MnSCU, faculty

Published 8:34 am Thursday, March 12, 2015

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency

A faculty/administration truce that seems wary but workable was announced last week by the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, the public higher education system on which Minnesotans rely most to prepare this state’s future workforce.

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That’s good news — good enough to put a funding increase for MnSCU back into Gov. Mark Dayton’s recommendations to the 2015 Legislature. Dayton has not yet specified a dollar a.m. ount, but has said that he would ask for enough to allow MnSCU to extend for at least one more year a tuition freeze that began in 2013-14 and propose half of the sum MnSCU says a second year would require.

It’s also good enough to resume MnSCU’s implementation of Charting the Future, the strategic plan it has been pursuing since 2013. That work has been stymied since October when MnSCU’s two faculty unions withdrew from participation and cast “no confidence” votes in Chancellor Steven Rosenstone. Central to their complaint was their sense that faculty perspectives were going unheeded.

The agreement between MnSCU’s administration and the unions addresses that complaint. It calls for reconstituting the steering committee that had been directing the process into a larger “coordinating committee,” and shifting much of the work to campus-based or regional collectives of faculty, students and administrators. It amounts to a reaffirmation of shared governance among administrators and faculty, long a hallmark of American higher education.

Will that time-tested but often-cumbersome approach to decisionmaking also prove good enough to produce the system that Charting the Future envisioned? That remains to be seen — and that will be the ultimate measure of the agreement a board negotiating team and faculty union leaders forged.

Charting the Future aims for a more efficient, flexible and customer-focused higher education system. Among its goals: Improved “affordability, transferability and access” for students; more opportunities for students to obtain certification for competencies acquired outside the classroom; more academic support for students from underserved populations; more shared back-office operations; closer ties to employers, and financial structures that reward campuses for collaborating rather than competing with each other.

Those goals befit a system that was cobbled together 20 years ago out of three disparate ones and has yet to achieve its full potential. With Minnesota now confronting a shortage of skilled workers, optimizing MnSCU’s assets has become urgent work.

Because much of that work involves curricular reform, it’s fitting that faculties shoulder more responsibility. Employers increasingly need workers with technical and professional competencies as well as the “soft skills” that liberal-arts study imparts. MnSCU should be able to produce graduates who fill that bill — provided faculties are willing to reach out of their silos to creatively combine academic approaches.

Deeper connections between two- and four-year faculties may be a silver lining of the recent discord, Inter Faculty Organization President Jim Grabowska said last week. Stronger ties have been developed among members of the IFO and Minnesota State College Faculty unions that might aid curricular redesign, he said.

We hope Grabowska is right. Last fall, he said the faculty beef was with Rosenstone and the Charting the Future process, not its goals. With a restart that gives the faculty more voice, the unions’ chance to prove the sincerity of those words has arrived.

Rosenstone has some proving to do, too. He has acknowledged that he made too many unilateral moves at the start of the strategic planning process. He’ll need to be a different kind of change agent now, helping to determine which of the ideas that will percolate up from campus and regional groups warrant systemwide consideration and/or financial support. He must orchestrate what’s bound to be cacophony at times into something at least coherent if not harmonious.

State politicians should give the renewed planning process a chance to proceed without undue meddling. A bill introduced this week by state Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, to encourage more autonomy among MnSCU campuses seems ill-timed at best. MnSCU was created to provide students with more coordinated programs and taxpayers with more economies of scale. Charting the Future moves in that direction. More campus autonomy does not.