Trustees ask: What kind of education should MnSCU provide?

What are we good for?

In late July I wondered why wording in recent Minnesota higher-ed legislation was so narrowly focused on meeting the needs of the state’s employers — and was practically silent about whether education should make students well-rounded citizens.

Yesterday, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) trustee Cheryl Dickson apparently wondered, too — and began a short discussion of what kind of person a MnSCU education should create, and what the system’s identity will be.

It began when the board reviewed an amendment that would include the legislative language in board policy. Here’s the main part:

1 Academic Programs

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3 Part 1. Purpose and Applicability. The purpose of the Academic Programs policy is to direct

4 system decision-making regarding the development, approval and management of credit-based

5 academic programs. In order to meet Minnesota’s educational needs, the Minnesota State

6 Colleges and Universities system shall endeavor to:

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8 1. Ensure quality and excellence that is competitive on a national and international level in

9 meeting the needs of students for occupational, general, undergraduate, and graduate

10 education;

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12 2. Facilitate ease of transfer among schools and programs, integrate course credit, and

13 coordinate degree programs;

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15 3. Give highest priority to meeting the needs of Minnesota employers for a highly skilled

16 and adaptable workforce;

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18 4. Enhance Minnesota’s quality of life by developing understanding and appreciation of a

19 free and diverse society; and

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21 5. Eliminate unnecessary duplication and achieve efficient and streamlined operations.

Dickson remarked:

“I find this all really disturbing. There’s nothing about making better decisions, or participating in a democracy. … This focuses so much on producing workers, it sounds like we’re producing widgets. If we only produce the kind of people employers want … we find that people hire people who have majored in English and philosophy. They work out very well in areas in which they got no training. (The language and list of priorities) has a laser-like focus on producing workers — and not citizens.”

(Note: Quotations are from my notes and not verbatim)

She was told that the language is in line with the way MnSCU already runs its programs.

But Minnesota State University – Mankato President Edna Mora Szymanski said:

“I’d caution against the interpretation that it’s easy to match what employers want with what we produce. I’ve been meeting with (tech) employers … and they say, ‘We’re not looking for the tech person we were looking for 5 years ago. We’re looking for a (tech-minded person) in business, or a (tech-minded person) who knows health care.’ We’re beginning to hear of a trend (in which employers search for) an adaptable worker who brings many things to the table.”

And trustee Duane Benson cautioned:

“I don’t think we can predict what the work force needs.”

Chancellor Steven Rosenstone, who has vocally supported a strong liberal-arts education, more or less closed the debate by saying one shouldn’t define “work force” too narrowly:

“They’re looking for the political scientist, the economist … to help them undertand the outside world. If we’re not in position to provide that part of the workforce, they’ll turn somewhere else, or pick up and leave. I don’t understand the ‘workforce’ to be (those coming from) two-year colleges, but all walks of life. The arts (for example) are a vibrant part of Minnesota’s economy. I interpret this very broadly, and the way we link all these majors in our universities …is consistent with the instructions of the legislature. I don’t see this as an either-or. I see this as a totality.”

Dickson told the board:

“I’d like to (add) a (sixth point) to include the chancellor’s statements, so we can address this particular side of education. Because so many people read ‘workforce’ and read ‘workers.’ And I don’t mean to suggest that a plumber or electrician is ‘just a worker,” but we need to convey something higher. (Students) are not just a cog in the system, or part of the workforce. We need a No. 6 to address that.”

Rosenstone said he’s comfortable with the creation of a sixth point.

I’ll stay tuned to see what it says.