It’s tough for legislators to resist the impulse to fix something they consider amiss in any part of state government. But when the part in question is the 54-campus Minnesota State Colleges and University (MnSCU) system at this juncture in its 20-year history, restraint is in order.
That’s what we would advise in the case of a pair of bills sponsored by GOP Sen. Jeremy Miller of Winona. Miller’s moves are well-intentioned. But if enacted, they would impose state law in matters customarily left to educators and governing boards — and would do so just as MnSCU is restarting a strategic planning process that had been stalled by discord between the faculty and the system’s chancellor.
One of Miller’s bills would alter the selection of presidents at MnSCU’s 31 institutions to involve more control by a locally empaneled search committee and less by MnSCU’s chancellor, Steven Rosenstone. MnSCU’s existing process, which is not dictated by statute, involves considerable local consultation but gives Rosenstone latitude in shaping search committees. Campus presidents are ultimately appointed by MnSCU’s Board of Trustees.
Miller says his bill is a response to a desire within MnSCU for more campus control, and is not meant as criticism of presidential selections during Rosenstone’s tenure. It’s notable that all of the 18 presidential appointments made on Rosenstone’s watch have been first-choice candidates. They are a remarkably diverse group: 11 of the 18 are women and six are people of color. Minnesotans who value diversity in higher education should applaud that record and be wary of change in the selection process that produced it.
The other bill would direct MnSCU to implement a new plan for improving students’ ability to transfer credits from two-year to four-year programs, something MnSCU has been striving to streamline for many years. Miller says his bill reflects impatience with the system’s slow internal workings on curricular matters, which are traditionally the purview of the faculty. A House bill sponsored by DFL Rep. Connie Bernardy of Fridley takes a different but similarly directive approach on credit transfers.
Their impatience is understandable. But legislators aren’t well-positioned to make academic judgments. If they do, they risk damaging an institution’s reputation and ability to attract talent from around the country. That reputation needs safeguarding now. Only two weeks ago, MnSCU put itself back on a promising path to change that involves both more local engagement and smoother student transfers from one MnSCU institution to another. This year’s Legislature would be well advised to cheer on MnSCU and stay out of its way.