Freshmen aren't the only newbies on campus this fall at Minnesota's state-supported colleges and universities. Coincidence has simultaneously landed new occupants in the executive offices at both the University of Minnesota and at the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.
That could be a fortuitous coincidence for the state. Eric Kaler and Steven Rosenstone will decide in the next few months how to make their marks on their respective higher-education systems.
They have a rare opportunity to act in concert, and together align Minnesota's higher-education resources to better meet the state's 21st-century needs.
Separate search processes by separate governing boards brought Kaler and Rosenstone to their new posts. But had the MnSCU trustees and University of Minnesota regents colluded, they likely would not have found leaders better attuned to the state's entire higher-education enterprise than these two.
MnSCU's Rosenstone spent 15 years in administration at the university and knows well the vital role its research and outreach play in the state's economy.
Kaler was a senior administrator in a New York state system not unlike MnSCU. He participated in downsizing a branch campus and knows the pain associated with such moves.
Kaler and Rosenstone's introductory rounds recently included stops at the Star Tribune. Though they came separately, they sounded strikingly similar themes. For example:
• They vowed to protect academic quality, despite financial distress. "I think we can provide the best education in the state," Rosenstone asserted. "We're not going to step away from being excellent," Kaler said.
That's the right priority for a state that wants to keep punching above its weight in the knowledge-based economy. But holding to it won't be easy in the face of steadily declining state support. The most recent round of state cuts shaved 14 percent off the amount previously forecasted for higher education through June 2014.
• If state aid cuts keep coming, both will resist higher tuition. That's especially true for Rosenstone, who holds that raising tuition would suppress enrollment, especially among part-time students, who in most cases do not qualify for State Grant Program assistance. Raising tuition "would undermine our ability to accomplish the main goal. The number of students we serve has to increase," he said.
He's right. Producing more graduates is urgent, in Minnesota and around the country. This week came worrisome news that the United States now ranks 16th among the world's 36 leading industrialized nations in the share of its 25-to-34-year-olds who hold postsecondary degrees. That's down from 12th in 2006 and ought to be a call to action for America.
• Maintaining excellence without raising tuition means something has to give. Kaler and Rosenstone are both interested in reallocation of resources to root out needless duplication, locate services where they are most needed and collaborate across system lines.
Each system has done a fair amount of internal reallocation already. Though each might do more, the greater untapped opportunity for cost savings likely lies in sharing resources across system lines.
State government has a role to play in exploring those opportunities. State analyses of workforce needs in various regions of the state ought to guide higher-ed planning.
So should a shared vision of the state's expectations -- ideally one that springs from both the governor and the Legislature, and from both Republicans and DFLers.
• The other "give" that's sorely needed is from the state's business community. Kaler and Rosenstone both seek deeper ties with Minnesota's employers. They're looking for help of three kinds: program collaboration, donations and lobbying at the Legislature.
For more than a decade, the business community's dominant message at the Legislature has been "no new taxes." Its support for higher education has been barely audible by comparison.
If employers want public colleges and universities to continue to be a reliable source of talent and marketable ideas, that lobbying emphasis needs to change. "No new taxes" is taking Minnesota higher education in the wrong direction.
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