MnSCU tries to keep up

Tracy Ellingson

The University became the state’s first higher education institution in 1851 — seven years before the state itself was established. Almost a century and a half later, the University is still the state’s highest funded system, but it no longer serves the majority of Minnesota post-secondary students.
The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system serves about three-fourths of all public college and university students in the state. But as the University continues to receive the most public support for its endeavors, MnSCU (pronounced MIN-SKEW) works to get its administration in place and obtain enough state funds to bring its technology up to speed.
Every public college and university, except the University, now makes up MnSCU — 36 community colleges, technical colleges and state universities on 54 campuses that serve about 145,000 students.
As one of the state’s two higher education systems, MnSCU and the University are both partners, as legislators and administrators from both systems say, and competitors for funds.
Different Missions
As publicly funded state schools, the University and MnSCU share a common accountability factor in that they must demonstrate fiscal responsibility to the state every two years. However, administrators from both systems agree that the two systems have distinctly different missions.
The University is a world-class research institution, while MnSCU schools focus generally more on teaching and instruction.
“I would say that MnSCU students, in general, are looking for different kinds of experiences than we offer at the University,” said Marvin Marshak, University vice president of Academic Affairs.
Marshak said MnSCU students are often looking for a small-campus feel without the high cost of a private college. Other students want or need to stay closer to home and choose a MnSCU school that may be more convenient or accessible.
The University’s faculty often makes a difference to students choosing between the University and MnSCU, Marshak said. Many students come to the University to interact with faculty who do research in their field and who have higher expectations for their students.
Budget Competitors
In his 1998-99 budget proposal, Gov. Arne Carlson requested that $40 million of his $132 million recommended increase for the University’s budget go to faculty recruitment and retention. The governor made no such specifications for MnSCU’s budget.
The governor has also cited that one of his goals during his last term as governor is to make the University a national top 10 research institution. But whether the state can provide the money to make such a goal feasible might depend on the events of the next month when the Legislature decides how much the University and MnSCU will actually receive.
This session, the Legislature removed the University’s own higher education committee. Now the University and MnSCU fall under the one higher education committee that decides the state funding level for both systems.
Both systems asked for substantial increases in state funding this year in their biennial budget requests. The University asked for a 17 percent increase to bring its funding to $1.6 billion, while MnSCU requested $1.06 billion, a 14 percent hike.
The University’s recent presentations to the Legislature have been something of a demonstration of new innovations and technologies intended to impress legislators. But MnSCU has spent its time before lawmakers demonstrating little more than critical need.
“Be patient with us,” MnSCU Chancellor Judith Eaton said at a hearing at the Capitol last week. “Allow us the space for the difficulty of applying change.”
The Birth of MnSCU
MnSCU came into operation in July 1995 as the result of a merger of three separate higher education systems authorized in 1991 by the Legislature. Lawmakers approved the merger in order to save state funds after they decided there was an excessive number of college campuses in the state.
When MnSCU officially came together, it was after a strong effort during the four-year grace period by the merger’s opponents to reverse the legislation.
Part of MnSCU’s mandate was to consolidate 20 community and technical colleges by 1997 into 10 comprehensive colleges. The organization exceeded the Legislature’s request, as it has turned 22 separate community and technical college campuses into 11 comprehensive colleges.
Although several MnSCU colleges have split into separate campuses over the past two years, the total number of campuses under MnSCU’s board has declined from 47 to 36 since the organization began reshaping its system a year and a half ago.
Trying to Keep Up
Last week, Eaton presented the final draft of the system’s academic plan for consolidating Minneapolis Community and Technical College and Metropolitan State University before the state House of Representative’s Higher Education Finance Division.
The plan is part of an ongoing effort to streamline MnSCU’s resources in order to meet state requirements to become more efficient.
During its last session, the Legislature asked MnSCU administrators to produce a plan for consolidating the Twin Cities campuses. Legislators specified that MnSCU seek input for the plan from the University.
However, Higher Education Finance Division committee members had strong reservations about the plan, citing a lack of consideration given to other constituencies, specifically the University, as the plan’s greatest problem.
“It’s unfortunate that the tentative first steps of MnSCU produced something like this,” said committee chair Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona. “It does not appear the U of M had anything to do with this plan. Given that this was a direction to MnSCU, they should have brought the University in.”
Eaton, chair of the Higher Education Advisory Committee, an organization of which University President Nils Hasselmo is a member, said she thought MnSCU had incorporated the University’s and other constituencies’ input in its most recent plan.
“I think we did a great deal of internal and external concentration,” Eaton said. “But the issue is, did we meet (the legislators’) needs and expectations, and they’re telling us no,’ so we’ve got to go do more. That’s the job.”
Marshak said because MnSCU is such a new organization and has so much on its plate, consulting the University is most likely not a top priority for MnSCU.
“It’s not that we don’t interact,” Marshak said. “It’s just that when you get into these administrative jobs, you have this to-do list that has about 25 things on it, at least, everyday — and you wind up doing 10 of them, and the other 15, you end up pushing off for another day.”
For MnSCU administrators, it might seem like that list will never end.