Strategies for access to higher education in the future

While seeking to become an elite public research institu-tion, the University must balance various interests.

Decreasing governmental support has put the University under stress. The prospects for a complete turnaround of our circumstances are unlikely, due to continuing budget deficits and too many unsympathetic ears in government. University President Bob Bruininks and E. Thomas Sullivan, senior vice president for Academic Affairs and provost, have responded with a bold and ambitious strategic-positioning process. Central to this process is the goal of becoming one of the top three public research institutions in the world. While this may seem unrealistic at first glance, Sullivan asserts we are already in the top 10. Nevertheless, the move up a half dozen ranks is no easy task and requires bold moves.

One of these moves may be to redefine access to the University. This could come directly by raising admissions requirements across all colleges or through structural consolidation as Bruininks has suggested. Attracting “better” students can have large consequences.

Simply admitting a student body with high school ranks and ACT/SAT scores above the 75th percentile could take us several notches up toward our goal. In 2003, several universities that stand between us and the top three each admitted fewer than 400 students with high school ranks below the first quartile, while the University admitted approximately 1,300. We believe that matching our competition in this way will damage the relationship between the University and the citizens of Minnesota. As long-time faculty members in the General College, we have first-hand knowledge of attempts to restrict access. But similar attempts extend back beyond our experience.

We think a historical perspective on the access issue at other times of stress can be helpful in thinking about our current situation. In James Gray’s history of the University’s first 100 years, he pointed out that the University developed out of former University President William Watts Folwell’s vision of a comprehensive institution that “must not be merely of the people but for the people.” His vision was not universally accepted by the faculty or the Board of Regents. Folwell’s faculty opponents “believed that an institution of higher learning should train the few to be adornments to polite society rather than to train the many to the service of the professions.” A financial crisis in 1879 emboldened Folwell’s faculty opponents to present to the regents a radical plan to change the University to a more elite institution. The regents, desiring to economize, used it as cover to eliminate the departments of history and physics.

A half-century later, controversy over the issue of access boiled over and resulted in a more – rather than less – complex structure at the University and, we believe, better choices for students and better service to the broad spectrum of the people of Minnesota. These changes were stimulated by the dean of the College of Science, Literature and the Arts (now College of Liberal Arts). Dean J. B. Johnston pioneered the use of high school rank and standardized test scores as a means to predict which students would likely be successful. But his desire to restrict access came up against former University President Lotus Delta Coffman’s egalitarian ideals. A compromise resulted in the establishment of University College for students to design their own baccalaureate degree programs and the General College for students who did not pass Johnston’s muster.

It’s hard to imagine a more turbulent time for the University than 1932. The Depression was churning U.S. society both economically and spiritually, while fascism was burgeoning around the world. Instead of cutting back, Coffman set about the task of actively reconciling opposing visions of the University. First he established the University Committee on Educational Research to provide data useful to decision making. Then he recruited distinguished faculty from around the University to use that data to design new programs and curricula to expand rather than constrict what the University did. Faculty members who worked with General College are easily recognized today – 16 University facilities were named in their honor.

Coffman’s work has stood the test of time. University College no longer exists, but its educational ideals remain in the College of Continuing Education. The General College has survived since 1932 despite continuing assaults by faculty and administrators committed to a smaller, elite and focused University.

As the University community works together to implement the latest planning document, we hope the result reconciles competing values as effectively as Coffman did. If so, the decisions made in this process will have the prospect of also lasting more than seven decades.

Thomas Brothen and Cathrine Wambach
are award-winning University professors. Please send comments to [email protected]