Reclaiming public education

Is the University stressing research and discovery at the expense of education?

Lolla Mohammed Nur

Our University is in troubled times. WeâÄôve heard incessantly from our administrators that we are faced with phenomenal financial challenges at a time when resources are scarce. We are told that decreased state and federal funding is the reason for increased class sizes and reduced course options. The economic crisis is apparently the root cause of our rising tuition.

We are told that regardless of the oceans of debt in which we are swimming, flashy stadiums and a planned $60 million expansion of the Recreation Center are somehow worth it.

We are being lied to. Our âÄúhard timesâÄù are the result of the irresponsible decisions being made by the people who run our public institution âÄî our administrators, the Board of Regents and President Bob Bruininks himself.

Our administration has been blinded by the single goal of becoming a âÄúGreat American UniversityâÄù âÄî in BruininksâÄô words: âÄúa world-class,âÄù âÄúglobally competitive,âÄù âÄútop-three research institution.âÄù

I had the âÄúgreatâÄù privilege to pay $20 to hear three administrators, including Bruininks, speak at last ThursdayâÄôs event âÄúRenewing the Promise: Shaping the Next Century for the Great American University.âÄù

The atmosphere âÄî of audience and speakers alike âÄî embodied nothing but grandiosity. The speakersâÄô unabashed praise of the University of MinnesotaâÄôs mission to become a top research institution made me cringe, as did the themes of the night: tapping into the UniversityâÄôs resources to make it a better business partner, praising the virtues of our scientific and technological advances and moving forward as a global leader in âÄúcutting-edgeâÄù research.

âÄú[Great universities] are not principally defined by what most educated Americans think they are, which is the quality of undergraduate education, the quality of profession exploration or the transmission of knowledge,âÄù said Jonathan Cole, Columbia UniversityâÄôs former provost and dean of faculties.

âÄúWhat really defines them in terms of world-class status is the quality of the innovation and the discoveries that are made as a result of the creation of knowledge âÄî the mission that we hold, the forefront of producing new knowledge.âÄù

The discussion reeked of elitist and capitalist discourse. Take, for example, the glorification of the UniversityâÄôs business partnerships and the endless corporate references.

I am proud to say I now understand how producing new ideas is an enterprise, students are human capital and our educational system is a marketplace of ideas.

The disconnect between administrators and us, the students, is becoming ever-more palpable. While students work 20 hours per week to pay off debts, the University is obsessed with competing with ChinaâÄôs technological advances and its global competitiveness in research.

Research is a part of the UniversityâÄôs land-grant mission. But what are its costs? Tuition has more than doubled in a decade. Yet we are told it is in our interest to have more facilities and âÄútechnologically enhancingâÄù opportunities.

And we have been silently letting those in power decide what is best for us. ItâÄôs time to take action, and itâÄôs not too late.

Hours before the administrationâÄôs event, I attended a panel discussion organized by members of Fight to Reclaim Public Education as a response to the âÄúGreat ConversationsâÄù series.

Aptly titled âÄúRenewing the Promise: Reclaiming the University âÄî Fulfilling our Promise to Students and the Public,âÄù the tone of the discussion and make-up of the audience was markedly different.

About 100 students, faculty and Minnesota citizens of diverse age and racial groups urgently âÄî and even angrily âÄî discussed the real crises we are facing: corporatization, skyrocketing tuition and the neglect of funding for social sciences departments.

âÄú[Our administrators] think that what theyâÄôre doing is for the public good. We need to move this conversation outside the discourse of market discipline,âÄù said professor Karen Ho, the eventâÄôs mediator. âÄúHow are we going to extend this conversation to encompass all people and mobilize them to convince the administration of our side?âÄù

Panel speaker Gary Rhoades, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, spoke at length about the disturbing trends at our University.

âÄúWe are not in hard times âĦ The University needs to stop investing in facilities and start investing in faculties,âÄù he emphatically stated. âÄúItâÄôs time for us to get beyond our status aspirations and return to why the public invested in us with land grants. You can shame an institution into fulfilling its public responsibilities. ThatâÄôs what you need to do collectively now.âÄù

This Thursday is the National Day of Action to Defend Public Education. I hope that University students, faculty and the public will unite to defend our interests and the UniversityâÄôs actual mission, which is engraved over Northrop Auditorium:

âÄúFounded in the Faith that Men are Ennobled by Understanding; Dedicated to the Advancement of Learning and the Search for Truth; Devoted to the Instruction of Youth and the Welfare of the State.âÄù