Group to review state higher ed

Gov. Tim Pawlenty asked the nonpartisan Citizens League to conduct the evaluation.

by Molly Moker

Beginning next month, an independent, nonpartisan group will evaluate the quality and direction of higher education in Minnesota.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty appointed the Citizens League, a group of approximately 2,500 Minnesotans concerned with the quality of life in the state, in February. Approximately 30 members of the group will assess the condition of higher education, make recommendations for improvement and plan for the future of institutions statewide.

University President Bob Bruininks said although studies of this magnitude are conducted every five to 10 years, this is the first time an entire independent group has been selected for the task. Past groups have been composed of individual appointees, he said.

The group’s recommendations will be made to the governor in time for 2005’s legislative session.

Citizens League President Sean Kershaw said although the governor appointed the organization, the Citizens League will control the committee’s higher education assessment. The group will not seek state approval for how to conduct the study, he said.

“The League will have total ownership of it,” Kershaw said. “We have no ideological agenda and that’s the reason the governor appointed us.”

Citizens League members regularly study public policy choices, find solutions and make recommendations.

Group members from throughout the state will participate in the higher education evaluation to ensure equal representation.

Kershaw said two co-chairs will head the committee. The committee is currently in a planning stage, he said.

The Citizens League named the co-chairs at their meeting Tuesday morning. Kershaw said the rest of the committee will be formed in April and will start working on narrowing the scope of the project.

The committee’s assessment will run from the end of April until January, he said.

Kershaw said the assessment will be an open process and said he hopes to involve many Minnesotans in it.

The committee will submit their recommendations to Pawlenty next year.

“It’s up to him what he does with it,” Kershaw said. “He’s looking to the Citizens League to find the best answers and bring an objective viewpoint.”

Institution input

Bruininks spoke to Citizens League members Tuesday.

He said he is looking forward to the assessment and thinks Pawlenty selected the right group for the job.

“(The Citizens League) has a long-standing history of involvement in higher education,” Bruininks said in an interview. “It is an excellent organization to conduct an objective, long-range view as to what Minnesota needs in a higher education system in the future.”

Bruininks said he hopes the group will evaluate issues of education access, affordability and quality.

“I hope that they will strengthen higher education in Minnesota and address the serious issues.”

Susan Heegaard, director of the Minnesota Higher Education Services Office, said the assessment has been needed for a long time.

“A lot of studies have been done by separate universities, but we really need to take a complete look at all schools across the state,” Heegaard said.

The Citizens League study will help the state decide where to invest money for future years, Heegaard said.

She said the Citizens League was chosen to conduct the study because they are the most familiar with higher education systems and have a good reputation in dealing with public policy. The organization’s committee process is also very reputable, Heegaard said.

A fair analysis

Heegaard said some people are worried the study might try to condemn rural campuses.

“Our goal is to take a close look at what we need to do,” Heegaard said. “A recommendation that comes from that might involve reconstructing a campus, but that’s not necessarily what our goal is.”

Heegaard said the committee will balance their study between rural and metro institutions.

Sen. Sandra Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, chairwoman of the Higher Education Budget Division, said some rural senators are concerned the study will be biased toward urban institutions.

“There were people who mentioned that this committee is metro-based and there is no one to represent greater Minnesota,” Pappas said. “This study will have to be fair and balanced or else it won’t be taken seriously (by the Senate) and we’ll dismiss it right away.”

Pappas said she would have preferred a committee established by the State Legislature to conduct this assessment, but it was not possible with the current budget situation.

“If a private sector is willing to take this on and finance it, then that’s the best we can do,” Pappas said.

Outside the State Legislature, the Citizens League is the best organization for the job, Pappas said.

Nancy Conner, director of publications and media relations for Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, said she is not aware of any bias the Citizens League would have toward urban institutions.

She said because institutions will be responsible for bringing information on their colleges to the committee’s attention, she does not feel rural schools will be unjustly served.

Conner said MnSCU welcomes the Citizens League’s assessment and are willing to work with them during the process.

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce said although they would have liked the legislative auditor to conduct the assessment, they have no opposition to the Citizens League’s work.

Laura Bordelon, Minnesota Chamber of Commerce policy director, said the assessment is long overdue as higher education has changed greatly during the last 10 years.

Bordelon said she wants the Citizens League to look at the different types of students who attend universities, different ways of training than universities now provide, and tuition and financial issues.

Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, said the Citizens League is a good group to take on the task.

“But I hope they have enough political willpower to make some tough decisions,” Weaver said.

He said one hard decision the group might have to make is whether the University should maintain its General College. He said because of the University’s financial situation, the group might decide that other state institutions could better serve those students.

Weaver said this evaluation is important to the Minnesota Business Partnership.

“Our members are very concerned with the overall quality of graduates that are coming into our system,” Weaver said. “We want higher education to be successful, so this is a perfect time to do this study.”

– Jake Weyer contributed to this story