Metro State can go back to its rule-breaking roots

  • Article by: JAMES E. LUKASZEWSKI
  • Updated: June 23, 2014 - 6:02 PM

Search for president should aim to renew school’s commitment to its nontraditional principles.

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The Metropolitan State University great hall in St. Paul.

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Sue Hammersmith retires next week after serving six years as the president of Metropolitan State University. During her term, Metro State experienced its most robust physical growth as well as enrollment and academic program growth. She leaves in place the most successful of Minnesota’s state colleges and universities. Her legacy includes having initiated the next phase of campus expansion, thereby ensuring the continued incremental revitalization of the Dayton’s Bluff area of St. Paul’s East Side.

And she leaves a huge legacy question: Where does Metro U go from here?

My perspective is as one of Metro’s earliest graduates. I am graduate No. 81, from the second graduating class, April 14, 1974 — 40 years and almost 40,000 graduates ago.

Metro was Minnesota’s first — and among America’s first — nontraditional colleges. Its future can be as remarkable as its history if the right successor president is chosen.

Fact is, Metro’s success has hidden a gradual drift away from the principles of its forefathers and founders — Metro’s first president, David E. Sweet, and former state universities Chancellor G. Theodore Mitau.

In the original plan, there was to be no campus, no administration building or teaching buildings — just total immersion in the community and its resources. The concept was to create the quintessential urban university using whatever the community had to offer for space, for faculty, for human energy and for commitment to education, and with a student population that truly reflected the urban demographics and needs of the communities the university serves.

Sweet and Mitau were rule-breakers. They convinced the Legislature in 1971 to provide nontraditional education for those over age 20. Initially, and for the first 10 years or so, there were no classes, no campus, no grades, no library and no tenured faculty. Instead, students and advisers fashioned “contracts” that included educational goals and assessment criteria. The environment was an extraordinary mixture of excitement, mystery, chaos and stunning individual educational achievement at and in the urban center of the community. I have a 24-page narrative transcript rather than grades.

Metro does retain much of its nontraditional authenticity. Some current examples:

1. When I returned to the Twin Cities after 25 years in New York, I needed an employee. I called Metro U’s placement office. There is no placement office. Virtually all Metro students are working.

2. Metro is the best tuition bargain in Minnesota.

3. The average age of a Metro student is 32 — a constant from the school’s first class.

4. Metro U students come to perfect their lives with purpose, customized community-based learning opportunities, and amazing family and workplace support.

5. Metro provides an open, unaccredited curriculum in the business school. An accredited school must have people with advanced degrees doing all the educating. Metro wants faculty to be of and from the community — community-committed managers and leaders to educate people about to build businesses.

6. Metro U’s demographics match almost exactly the communities it serves.

Today, Metro has several campuses with more to come. On its flagship St. Paul campus, in the next two years, it will build a science building, a student center and a major parking facility, all the while planning to open additional centers in the metro area.

The challenge facing those who will select Metro’s next president, if they choose to accept it, is whether this urban university can use this moment of cultural inflection as an opportunity to recalibrate its focus more toward its original founding principles, becoming the rule-breakers, once again.

How many future focused rule-breakers — that is, present-day Sweets and Mitaus of our communities — will be engaged in the selection process? Can those now largely dormant nontraditional muscles and attitudes be reactivated?

As the successor search begins, the Metro community must come together to help the searchers focus on Metro’s rule-breaking founding ideals and principles.

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