Something Steven Rosenstone said to the MnSCU board of trustees on the February 2011 day they chose him as the big state higher-ed system’s chancellor has stayed with him through rocky recent months.

“The opposite of decentralization is not centralization,” Rosenstone said that day. “It’s collaboration and coordination.”

The leader of the 54-campus system would say the same today. In fact, he did — several times — in an interview last week.

Now the 63-year-old educator’s job is to convince the rest of the giant Minnesota State Colleges and Universities family that he means it — then persuade others to engage in a lot more collaboration and coordination than they’ve exhibited to date during 20 years under one governing umbrella.

Rosenstone and MnSCU’s two faculty unions have been back on speaking terms for about a month now, after a winter of a lot of discontent. An expansive strategic planning process, “Charting the Future,” ground to a halt last fall amid a flurry of faculty “no confidence” votes in Rosenstone’s leadership.

The rumble was loudest at MnSCU’s state universities, which bestow four-year and some graduate degrees and where resistance was strongest 20 years ago to the Legislature’s decree that three Minnesota higher-education systems should become one. The state universities’ Inter Faculty Organization once dubbed Charting the Future “Soviet-style centralization” and complained that faculty perspectives were downplayed or ignored in the planning process.

Faculties have been assured a larger role going forward, under an agreement hammered out by union leaders and a team of trustees and that Rosenstone says he fully supports. In fact, he says, it’s what he always intended. (“The opposite of decentralization is collaboration and cooperation.”)

He acknowledges that his preference for something other than central control of the far-flung MnSCU enterprise was not always clear or well-conveyed in recent years. Too often, Charting the Future was seen as “Steven’s project,” though teams of MnSCU stakeholders were involved at every step of what will soon be a two-year effort.

“I never wanted this to be ‘Steve’s way or the highway,’ ” he said. “A place where we could have done a lot better job, and where we needed lots of other people’s input, is to paint a clearer picture of the future. That’s still what’s needed.”

Foretelling the future is a tall order, not just for MnSCU but for all of American higher education. It’s an angsty time within the hallowed halls. Colleges and universities, both public and private, are being bombarded with demands to do more with less and doubts about the value of what they do now.

Things that were long deemed fundamental within the academy are being widely questioned — things like distinct academic disciplines, separations between liberal arts and technical training, professorial control of curricula, and the bestowing of credits toward degrees.

Politicians are increasingly willing to tell colleges and universities what to teach, what to credit, and what to charge for the privilege. Tuition has climbed far faster than family incomes, leaving students and their families increasingly unwilling and/or unable to pay and an entire generation hobbled by debt. Disruptive alternative models for delivering higher learning are coming to the fore.

It’s enough to energize some faculty members and leave others with a sense of foreboding, loss and anger. That mixed mood among the people whose role traditionally has been to safeguard academic quality complicates any campaign for higher-education change. One need not hold Rosenstone blameless for the mutiny he faced to acknowledge that he has a very tough job.

What the chancellor says sustained him when he was under fire last fall is the passion that first drew him to a career in higher education — a desire to transform students’ lives for the better. That’s the very sentiment that ought to imbue Charting the Future 2.0 going forward. Concern for students is something Rosenstone says he’s confident he and MnSCU’s faculty have in common.

Rosenstone noted that this year, MnSCU’s 250,000 students include 99,000 with incomes low enough to qualify for federal Pell Grants, 62,000 students of color and 52,000 whose parents did not attend college. Three out of five live in Greater Minnesota; two out of five are 25 or older.

“Most of those students would have no opportunity for the lives they want for themselves, their families and their communities if we don’t do our jobs really well,” he said. “I feel a huge responsibility to those students, and I’m not afraid to say we can do better. We can do better on affordability; we can do better on success; we can do better on the achievement gap — we’ve got our own — and we can do better in making it easier for students to attend multiple institutions.”

This year, 46 percent of the MnSCU students who will receive four-year degrees will have attended more than one postsecondary institution to reach that milestone. One out of five MnSCU students will be enrolled in more than one institution in the same semester. They ask: Why can’t students start a baccalaureate program at a local community college and seamlessly continue at a state university a few years hence? Why can’t they easily enroll in a class in a nearby MnSCU institution when the class they wanted in their home school is full? When they already know a class’s content, why can’t they test out of a required class, get credit and move on?

Adapting MnSCU to better serve those students is what Charting the Future must now be about. Yes, it should happen via collaboration and coordination, not “Soviet-style centralization.” But what’s most important is not how change is made or by whom, but for whom.


Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer. She is at