Provost Sullivan responds to ‘Driven to deception’

Tom Sullivan - senior vice president for academic affairs and provost

I write in response to the Minnesota DailyâÄôs March 31 editorial titled “Driven to deception.” Far from being a manipulative and deceptive public relations ploy, the strategic positioning focus on excellence has resulted in material, measurable improvements. The result is not simply more recognition for the University of Minnesota. Let me explain some of the examples of alleged “deception” cited in the editorial.

First, there has been a $192 million increase in research expenditures at the University. The editorial asserts that these expenditures do not mean the quality of research conducted has improved. The dollars, however, come as a result of rigorous, competitive reviews conducted by the federal government and other funding sources. The awards University researchers receive are a measure of the quality of the UniversityâÄôs research. Additionally, more funding provides more opportunity for discovery and employment.

The University has dramatically improved its retention and graduation rates âÄî and that improvement directly benefits students. For example, the four-year graduation rate increased from 37 percent to more than 50 percent in just the past five years.

The benefits of this include reduced cost to students and the ability of more individuals to receive an education from the University. That graduation rates happen to be a variable in popular rankings does not diminish the value to students of graduating in less time and does not indicate that the University is too focused on rankings, as the editorial asserts.

Every class of incoming freshmen during strategic positioning has succeeded the previous class as the strongest in University history. But contrary to the implication in the editorial, simply because these particular metrics are also used in popular rankings does not in itself make them suspect as appropriate measures of success.

While there is no question that admission to the University has become more competitive âÄî undergraduate applications have more than doubled since the start of strategic positioning to more than 39,000 âÄî I disagree with the editorialâÄôs assertion that strategic positioning has benefited “only the highest achieving students at the University.” The Access to Success program, which serves more than 450 students, emerged as a new strategic positioning program designed to assist promising students who may need additional support. Moreover, the more successful the student body, the greater value potential employers will place on a University degree.

The University has increased tuition, as noted in the editorial, but not nearly as much as it has grown student financial aid. As a result, the average net price that resident undergraduates pay to attend the Twin Cities campus has increased only 3.1 percent per year over the past 10 years. While the editorial is correct that total financial aid numbers include loans, the University also increased the non-loan, direct grant portion of the aid provided by $65 million since the start of strategic positioning.

While I appreciate the concerns expressed in the editorial about the potential negative effects that stem from popular higher education rankings, it is not any particular popular ranking that the University chases. Rather, there is a need to champion the UniversityâÄôs reputation and recognize the direct relationship of that reputation to the value of its degrees. Those who earn a University degree will hold that credential for the rest of their lives.

How the world perceives the value of that degree, and the extent to which it retains that value, is vital to the job prospects and other successes of our graduates throughout life. Strategic positioning was not an exercise in manipulating appearances but rather an ongoing University-wide plan to enhance excellence and to thereby enhance the UniversityâÄôs reputation around the world, the result of which benefits all students and graduates.