A plan to shake up the way students are educated at Minnesota's 31 state colleges and universities was approved Wednesday by the board of trustees.

The plan, "Charting the Future," calls for sweeping changes that would expand the use of online teaching and make it easier for students to graduate more quickly, in part by awarding credit for skills they've already mastered.

It's also designed to help schools adapt their programs, in fields such as information technology, more quickly to the changing needs of the job market, said Steven Rosenstone, chancellor of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU).

"This is about improving dramatically how we do our work," Rosenstone said.

Just last month, a faculty union blasted an early version of the plan, saying it would lead to "Soviet-style" centralized control of the seven state universities and 24 community and technical colleges.

But top officials denied that was their intent. "Is this just a Trojan Horse to build a bigger central office? No, it's not," Rosenstone said in an interview.

However, he said, the plan calls for the 31 colleges and universities to start working together in new ways to serve students better. Although the colleges have been part of a single system since 1995, they basically operate independently, sometimes competing with one another for the same students, Rosenstone said. In some cases, he said, the universities won't accept transfer credits from their sister colleges.

"It's a call for collaboration and coordination," he said, "in a way, quite frankly, we haven't been very good at."

'A much softer version'

The final draft, unveiled Wednesday, seemed to allay some, though not all, of the union's concerns. "I think it's a much softer version," said Nancy Black, president of the Inter Faculty Organization, which represents faculty at the seven state universities. At the same time, she raised concerns that it's a "one-size-fits-all" model that emphasizes job-training programs over academics.

"I don't know what it will do, but I do know it certainly did not emphasize the richness of a university education," she said. The term "liberal arts," she noted, only appears once in the 23-page report.

The plan lays out six broad themes for change, including:

• More collaboration on academic and training programs across the system.

• Embracing "competency-based" assessment, which awards credits and degrees based on demonstrated skills rather than class time.

• Improving graduation rates for students, especially "diverse populations."

• Expanding "high-quality online courses."

• Creating "new models" to provide customized training for businesses and industries.

• Using financial incentives to "reward collaboration" — rather than competition — among the colleges.

Will take 3-5 years

Rosenstone said the plan will take three to five years to put in place and that it will be up to faculty members, and others, to decide how to do that.

Rosenstone said the recommendations were the result of a year's work by a 46-member group of students, faculty, administrators and trustees.

"There was probably no one among the 46 who likes everything in the report," said Joe Opatz, president of Normandale Community College and one of the leaders of the group. "It was all a process of consensus."

Earl Potter, president of St. Cloud State University and another work-group member, said the challenge will be putting the changes in place.

"Our history does not give great confidence that we have the stomach, the courage and the capacity to make these changes," he said. "It's a leap of faith."