Dear Chancellor Devinder Malhotra:

Congratulations on your appointment as head of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system (“Minnesota State keeps its interim chancellor,” March 3). You are facing some genuine challenges in the years ahead. As a recently retired academic administrator, I would appreciate the opportunity to share a few observations about those challenges.

One of the core commitments of the Minnesota State system is to “ensure access to an extraordinary education for all Minnesotans.” This makes good PR, and it is a laudable goal, but it is also, in our current climate, a fantasy, and it obscures just how bad the current situation is. Over the past few decades, the Legislature has stepped away from its commitment to be the primary funder of higher education in Minnesota. While it once committed itself to funding 67 percent of the cost of state institutions of higher education, it now funds between 30 and 40 percent, and that figure continues to drop. The Minnesota State system may be able to provide an ordinary, adequate education for many, but even that will be a challenge. Pretending otherwise does not help.

A second core commitment of the Minnesota State system is to be the “partner of choice to meet Minnesota’s workforce and community needs.” The system focus on workforce training plays well with legislators and with local businesses, but it does not follow a model in which the desires and demands of students are met. And we often see the outcome when technical programs are developed at great expense and students refuse to enroll in them. It doesn’t help when technical programs prepare students for jobs that may not exist. As industry shifts its training costs to students, industry should also guarantee that the training will profit the student. Currently, it doesn’t. In sum, the current emphasis on technical/vocational programs in the greater Minnesota area is highly problematic.

A third core commitment of the Minnesota State system is to deliver “the highest value/most affordable higher education option” for Minnesotans. In many ways, the Minnesota State system does just that. However, we hear legislators complain repeatedly about the high costs of remedial education. Despite concerns about cost, and a high failure rate in such courses, the majority of students in the two-year system need one or more remedial courses in math, English or both. One suggestion has been to stop requiring students to take these courses, but this would simply shift the failure rate into the higher-level courses that these students are not prepared to take. It is not possible to bring a student who has a grade-school-level education to a college level in a semester or two. How can the Legislature help? At present, state law requires the two-year system to accept as students anyone who has a high school diploma. This should end until high schools require students to demonstrate at least 10th(!)-grade standards in English and math before graduation.

But the central problem for Minnesota State is that the system is overbuilt. The old model of a fully staffed physical college every few miles is obsolete. You will need to begin the politically arduous process of closing and limiting services on campuses. Closing a campus in any town will cause consternation and political pushback — often from the same groups who decline to fund the system — but the system is now funding and supporting buildings and fully staffed campuses that are not needed. In an era of declining revenue, this must end.

Chancellor Malhotra, your work is cut out for you. But there are a lot of us out here who wish you well and are willing to help.

 

Gary Henrickson is a retired dean of liberal arts and sciences for Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Fergus Falls, Minn.