Is Winona State trying too hard to be like a research university?

Winona State University

Winona State University

A poser university?

Winona State University recently tussled with the think tank Education Sector in the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education over its new $19.5 million Integrated Wellness Complex — and what it means for higher education.

Education Sector Policy Director Kevin Carey took the first shot last month in “The Dangerous Lure of the University Research Model,” saying in effect that too many regional universities such as Winona State — once “normal schools” and teachers colleges — are sacrificing their core mission by aping research universities. They’re reorganizing themselves, he suggested, taking on ever-fancier titles and constructing ever-fancier buildings so they can play with the Big Boys:

Segregating faculty into autonomous, noncooperating departments, each with chairs and accompanying administrative expenses, makes a fair amount of sense for institutions designed to conduct research. But Winona State isn’t a research university. …

Because former normal schools are using the research-university design to conduct the very different task of educating academically diverse undergraduates, they’re often not very good at their jobs. Many graduate fewer than half of their students. Some graduate fewer than a third. Because they continue to train teachers while staying stuck at the lower end of the admissions-selectivity totem pole, they send a lot of less-talented new teachers into K-12 classrooms. …

I don’t begrudge the citizens of Winona their university, or have any reason to believe that its faculty and students are not scholars working in good faith. But a higher-education system in which teachers colleges are building $20-million gymnasiums is a system that is dangerously vulnerable to forces gathering outside the city walls.

Instead of building big facilities, he suggests, they should invest in new teaching methods and business models so they can stay ahead of their real competitors — for-profit colleges, for example:

It will be difficult for long-established institutions to avoid the temptation of hunkering down and hoping that obsolescence comes later rather than sooner. … Fortunately, there is no reason that public officials can’t build new, low-cost colleges and universities that aren’t burdened by a century of trying to ape the research university.

His essay drew the criticism of Winona State President Judith Ramaley, who wrote earlier this month:

There is a numbing similarity in these calls to arms — broad generalizations based on limited information, narrow viewpoints, claims that higher education is in decline, and simple recipes for a quick fix. The reality is that academic institutions across the country are thoughtfully re-examining what it means to be educated for a new century, and creating purposeful educational environments that foster qualities our graduates will need to lead productive, responsible, and creative lives.

She hailed the redesigning of Winona’s nursing and teacher prep programs, called the Integrated Wellness Complex “a dynamic learning environment,” and said Winona’s faculty “work together to create integrative and multidisciplinary options for our students” and work with sister institutions “to design new, easily navigable pathways to careers” for transfer- and nontraditional and adult students:

… We are simply attempting to make more accessible and user-friendly choices available to as many students as possible. Indeed, the expansion of academic choices at institutions like Winona State may well be the ultimate “disruptive innovation” that reform-minded people so admire.

Alumnus Nicholas Hartlep bristled at the perception of Winona State as a “poser” university, saying it was one of the first “laptop universities” in the U.S and had the most rigorous and prestigious teaching-induction program in the tri-state area:

To me, the most saddening thing about Mr. Carey’s commentary is that it is so damaging to the reputation that Winona State has worked so hard at maintaining. The university has high standards, as evidenced by its having increased the admission standards (ACT scores, GPA, etc.) for undergraduates, as well as its prized Graduate Induction Program.