Sharp strategy for MnSCU. One catch ...

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 14, 2012 - 5:01 PM

The Legislature isn't at the table, and there are questions about whether it's even willing to be.

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The MnSCU board of trustees picked University of Minnesota vice president Steve Rosenstone as the next chancellor of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. In this photo:] After the selection process Rosenstone met with the media along with MnSCU staff and well-wishers.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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Higher education is an inherently optimistic enterprise. Maybe that's what makes Minnesota State Colleges and Universities chancellor Steve Rosenstone sound so confident about his new project.

It's no small thing. Rosenstone and MnSCU have embarked on a multiphase, multiyear venture aimed at nothing short of securing Minnesota's place in the 21st-century knowledge-based economy.

The project has a wonkish name -- the Workforce Assessment Initiative. It's starting this spring and summer with a series of 50-plus local meetings involving employers, educators and government officials.

The idea is for each region's business owners to describe their workforce needs in the next two to five years, and for educators and government officials to figure out how to prepare workers to meet them -- not sporadically or serendipitously, as too often happens now, but systematically.

That's only the start, Rosenstone says. He envisions a cascade of change flowing from these meetings that won't stop until it remakes high school and college -- "grades 11 through 14" -- into something more cohesive, cost-effective and adaptable to changing learner and employer needs.

"If we are going to meet the immediate skills gap that is clearly already here, and, in a long-term and sustainable way, align the graduates that we're already producing with the workforce needs of Minnesota, we need to do things differently," Rosenstone said.

The chancellor talks about these ideas with the same matter-of-fact tone most folks use to describe what they're doing this weekend. Yet he means to engineer big culture changes in complex, hidebound organizations -- not least his own 420,000-student, 54-campus behemoth.

Here's where his old-college-try optimism really shows: The Workforce Assessment Initiative and Rosenstone's ideas for what comes next rely on Minnesotans -- business, government, educators, labor -- pulling together.

Minnesotans used to be good at that, especially for education's sake. Historically, it's what enabled this state to punch above its weight.

But Gopher State capacity for consensus has eroded lately. Instead, Minnesotans have mastered the blame game. Educators blame business for starving their enterprise. Business blames educators for inefficiency and for producing an inadequate product.

Government stalls as Republicans and DFLers blame each other for choosing to fight rather than compromise -- and then everybody else blames government for dysfunction.

Given that backdrop, Rosenstone may have already pulled off something remarkable. There on the Workforce Assessment Initiative web page are three logos: the state Department of Employment and Economic Development, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, and MnSCU.

The philanthropic regional Initiative Foundations are also involved. And Rosenstone meets regularly with University of Minnesota officials and with the Dayton administration's K-12 chief, Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, and Office of Higher Education director Larry Pogemiller to discuss next steps.

There's one glaring omission on that list of partners -- the Legislature.

Due back Monday from its spring recess, the Legislature appears to be struggling to deliver the thing MnSCU needs most from state government this year -- a bonding bill to pay for building projects.

MnSCU asked for $225 million in state general obligation bonds for buildings, nearly all of them facilities needed for workforce education. Gov. Mark Dayton responded by recommending $81 million; the Senate, $95 million, and the House, a measly $44 million.

"The focus of our request is on preparing our workforce," Rosenstone said, pointing to lab space needs at Dakota County Technical College and St. Paul College, technician training facilities at Century College, and science and math classrooms at nearly a dozen places.

These projects need authorizing this year, he says. That's not for the sake of the construction jobs they will create, though those jobs would spur economic recovery.

"This is about training Minnesotans for the jobs that need to be done in the future. This is the state's priority right now. This will not happen if there's no bonding bill," Rosenstone said.

"No bonding bill." That dark possibility was being whispered at the Capitol before spring break. It was on the lips of a bona fide optimist at MnSCU HQ last week.

An odd alliance of DFLers who want to campaign against a "do-nothing" GOP Legislature and Tea Partiers who actually want the Legislature to do nothing could deny a bonding bill the three-fifths majority it requires.

No bonding bill would be a setback for MnSCU's ambitions and -- maybe worse -- for is optimism.

"There have to be some things that we step beyond the politics for to do what's right for Minnesota," Rosenstone said. "A human-capital strategy dealing with the workforce needs -- is that a Republican business issue or a Minnesota worker issue? Yes! It's both! No one loses if we are competitive as a state."

The converse is also true: If the Legislature can't or won't do its part to make sure Minnesota has a competitive workforce, everyone will lose.

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Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. 

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