Winona State prof to Gov. Dayton: Give us another Minnesota Miracle

I recently received this from Darrell Downs, president of the Winona State University Faculty Association. You might remember him as the guy who said MnSCU’s Charting the Future plan smacked of overcentralization.

Dear Governor Dayton:


With the first Minnesota Miracle in 1971, Governor Wendell Anderson and the legislature hammered out a response to the inequitable funding of local schools. With property-poor communities facing a lower ceiling for educational opportunity than wealthier ones, the quality and affordability of education depended upon where you lived.

Governor Anderson’s new funding formula put action behind the lofty words of Minnesota’s Constitution, in that: “The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it is that duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools.” (MN Constitution, Art. XIII, Sec. 1).

The Governor’s new formula didn’t solve every problem, but it did say “no” to a system that surrendered educational quality to the disparities of wealth. With affordability at the center of higher education challenges today, I am asking you for another miracle.

According to the MN Office of Higher Education, while per capita income doubled over the past twenty years, tuition and fees at the state universities grew by 204 percent, and an even more shocking 295 percent increase at the U of M.

Students and families are borrowing for higher education at rates that exceed increases in tuition and fees. And if that wasn’t bad enough, colleges and universities are responding to this affordability problem by transforming campuses into de facto private franchises led by centralized higher education bureaucracies.

Our campus franchises have, in turn, little choice but to serve the lowest common denominator with as many popular courses as possible. What works for McDonalds, however, doesn’t work for higher education or the state of Minnesota.

By comparison, it is clear that high enrollment courses make more money than upper division courses, but when low enrollment upper division courses, programs, majors, and minors are no longer valued, we will have destroyed our universities.

In my experience, there are signs we may be headed in this direction. Students are finding fewer courses related to their career interests. Students have less contact time with professors because the latter are dividing their time among more students in larger classes. Because upper division courses are being sacrificed for high enrollment courses, university catalog course lists often bear little relation to the courses which are actually available.

With such trends, how long will we be able to say that our universities are a home for students to explore their dreams if it is only the educational opportunities of the lowest common denominator that matter?

It seems perfectly reasonable to be concerned about the “bottom line,” and especially when affordability is a problem.

But the “bottom line” in public higher education cannot be measured only in short term revenue. Failing to recognize that the value of higher education accumulates throughout students’ lifetimes and creates added value for their families, workplaces, communities, states, and nations is to ignore the wisdom of generations.

And when campuses are not rewarded for long term benefits, they are compelled to focus on short term profits.

This is why Massive On-line Open Courses (MOOCs) – which have completion rates in the single digits at Harvard and MIT – and other forms of easy access on-line learning are popular despite entirely unknown long-term benefits. This is why colleges and universities are hiring more inexpensive part-time faculty without health and retirement benefits. And this is why new “profit centers” are emerging in our colleges and universities designed, not to serve the needs of traditionally enrolled students, but to serve the workforce training needs of private enterprise.

We can expect that campuses will continue to be entrepreneurial, but let’s not confuse that revenue with the social and economic value created by public education.

For all of its charms, private enterprise is a poor mentor for public education. The business model that led to the Wall Street/Enron banking bailout, to the subsidies for GM and Chrysler, and to the real estate/housing foreclosure debacle is a complete failure. And as we witnessed the failures of the Great Recession of the last decade, we also experienced record cuts in state higher education funding, record tuition increases, and record student indebtedness.

I am asking you to consider three steps toward another Minnesota Miracle:

1.     Freeze tuition. Major strides have been taken here, but can we make this permanent?  In last year’s legislative session, Representative Gene Pelowski and Senator Terri Bonoff crafted a budget freezing tuition for both the University of Minnesota and to the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU).  Contrary to MnSCU leaders’ efforts to increase tuition, Pelowski and Bonoff protected students, but we should not have to rely on legislators to fight for affordable higher education every legislative session.

2.     Plan for today not just five to ten years in the future. Planning is a good thing, but when long term visions blur current student needs, maybe it’s time for a reality check.  The reality is that MnSCU campuses and the U of M struggle mightily to survive on appropriations, tuition, and external funding.  Abstract multi-year planning funded on the backs of students and taxpayers is wrong when it’s done at the very time that some state universities (Moorhead, Southwest State, and likely others) are cutting programs, faculty, and student opportunities.

 3.     Create a funding formula that rewards classroom instruction. Today, either real or speculative enrollment changes have a dramatic and often exaggerated impact on classroom instruction.  Expected enrollment declines produce the elimination of entire sections of courses; and yet, expected increases in enrollment rarely have the opposite effect.  In other words, in bad times, classroom instruction suffers and in good times it merely survives at the same time that the administrative architecture of the higher education system continues to grow.

I’m asking for a lot.  But I remain hopeful that we can put “public” back in public higher education by making excellence an affordable option for all who seek it.

This will take another Miracle.


Darrell Downs

President, WSU Faculty Association

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the WSU Faculty Association.