Corporatization of U? Bring it on!

With all the secrecy and intrigue of an Ian Fleming novel, a blue-ribbon search committee is finalizing a list of presidential candidates to be presented to the Board of Regents. The arduous process of choosing University President Nils Hasselmo’s successor began almost a year ago when the regents held forums and sought input from the public. The regents appointed an 11-member task force in June that included representatives from the faculty, student government and various political interests from across the state. Their mission: to find a president as boldly committed to diversity as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, as politically respected as Walter Mondale and as wildly popular as the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.
Included in that list of attributes, I hope, are the economic instincts and financial acumen of CEOs like Bill Gates or Andy Grove of Microsoft and Intel fame, respectively. Regardless of the opinion of the Progressive Student Organization, the corporatization of academia is incontrovertible. It’s time to exit this stage of denial and quit yelling and screaming like misbehaving children. If the University is to remain a pre-eminent land-grant institution, our next president must be cognizant of corporate ladders and not just ivory towers.
For all of you disbelievers who fervently insist educational institutions are immune to the arguments of 18th-century economist Adam Smith, consider the laundry list of crises confronting our University:
Declining revenue. The legislative season is fast approaching, and administrative officials are absolutely giddy after consulting with Gov. Arne Carlson. The University’s upcoming biennial budget request tops out at more than $580 million, an increase of approximately 17 percent over the next two years. Since 1990, however, state funding has declined 10 percent. Worse yet, the Legislature is growing increasingly fond of micro-managing the University. Rep. Becky Kelso, DFL-Shakopee, of the House Education Committee and others are boisterously becoming involved with University governance by linking appropriation bills with performance measures and benchmarks. Clearly, the next president will experience Herculean struggles with the Legislature and the governor.
Restructuring. 3M recently spun off Imation to better serve its shareholders, and AT&T is initiating similar action. The next president of the University must also focus on core competences and eliminate less successful programs. Last spring, administrators attempted to reallocate scarce resources by closing General College. The proposal was about as popular as “Cutthroat Island.” Some evolution is crucial if we intend to maintain our ranking among the nation’s premier colleges and universities.
Since February 1991, 32 graduate programs have merged or been discontinued. Graduate School Dean Mark Brenner recently said an additional 13 masters and eight doctoral programs will be eliminated by spring 1997. Although these cuts are painful, the next resident of Eastcliff must be committed to continuing along this path.
Labor disputes. Containing the radioactive fallout from tenure reform will undoubtedly be a pressing issue for the incoming president. The debate already zapped the political life of one regent, and it’s difficult to predict how large the malignant tenure tumor will grow. Undoubtedly, the faculty’s distrust of the administration and the Board of Regents will not go away. Although regaining the respect of more than 3,000 faculty members seems impossible at this stage, a worthy president must make a sincere effort to do so.
Property, plant and equipment. Answer: While strolling through the basement of this campus building you’re likely to sweat, experience minor flooding and observe mice and cockroaches scurrying across the floor. As an added clue, this building is a warehouse of irreplaceable and environmentally-sensitive archives and overflow books. If you responded in the preferred Jeopardy format and said, “What is Walter Library?” you were correct. Unfortunately, Walter Library is only one of many maintenance nightmares haunting Facilities Management.
Last year, Sue Markham, an associate vice president at the time, somberly reported to the regents that, “Needs drastically exceed available funding.” The cost of conducting all repairs and replacements on the four campuses of the University would cost more than $900 million. Wow. Additionally, the steam plant proposal is simmering on the back burner and it will be a cold day in the house of Hades before the University conquers its heating crisis. Our next leader must have a thorough understanding of these issues.
Customer dissatisfaction. Every business must offer its products at an affordable price in order to satisfy its customers. Unfortunately the University hasn’t fully learned this lesson. Since the mid-1970s, tuition has rocketed through the stratosphere and consistently outpaced the Consumer Price Index by several points every year. Last spring, the regents raised tuition 7.5 percent, and a year at the University now costs the average student $11,400. This is absolute madness. The four-year graduation rate, an indicator of student success (and certainly student — if not parent — satisfaction), is an abysmal 14.9 percent. Addressing the needs of the University’s consumers should be a high priority for the presidential search committee.
The changing nature of higher education mandates that the University’s 14th president be intimately familiar with both the business and academic worlds. Instead of demanding excellence in a field like Scandinavian studies, we should perhaps search for a candidate like Lee Iacocca, the savior who in the early 1980s revived an ailing Chrysler. Hell, we might even be forward-thinking and call our next president a CEO.
Greg Lauer’s column runs every Wednesday in the Daily.