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The University of Minnesota - What's Your Vision?

During the week of February 19-23, 2001, Minnesota Public Radio News and Information stations ran the Universal U, an in-depth look at the University of Minnesota in this, its 150th year. The MPR Civic Journalism Initiative recruited some 75 people to come to a forum on February 22 to discuss visions for the future of the University and before that ran a two-week online forum asking the same question The University of Minnesota's Future: What's Your Vision? We promised those who participated in the live and online forums that the Civic Journalism Initiative would post an edited version of what they said here on Universal U web site. Here is that edited edition.

Forum Produced by MPR's Midday and Civic Journalism Initiative
February 22, 2001 - Ted Mann Concert Hall
Written by Frank Clancy, MPR Freelance Writer
Edited by Leonard Witt, Executive Director, Civic Journalism Initiative

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Midday host Gary Eichten opened the live forum on the future of the University of Minnesota by describing it as "a unifying force for the entire state" throughout its first 150 years of existence. Then he framed the type of difficult questions that will inevitably shape its future.

Given financial constraints - and the public demand for excellence - should administrators reduce the University's extraordinarily broad mission?

Should the University give up on trying to be all things to all people, and narrow its focus?

Eichten also pointed out that the University's mission is broader even than that of other Big Ten schools: With nearly 500 degree programs at the undergraduate and graduate level, Minnesota offers far more degrees than any other conference member. Yet the consensus - if not the unanimous opinion - among the 75 community leaders who gathered inside the Ted Mann Concert Hall was that "the U" might tinker with programs and shift priorities, but it should continue to serve its historically broad mandate. And some argued, persuasively, that the University must do still more, especially to help students of color succeed.

The University's Past
One of the day's first speakers, university historian Ann Pflaum, traced the roots of this debate to the 19th century, when the federal government first helped establish land grant universities, and Minnesota decided to make its fledgling state university both a research and a land-grant institution. As a result of that decision, Pflaum argued, the University is both efficient and enjoys strategic advantages for the 21st Century, most notably from having its veterinary, agricultural, biological sciences and medical schools under the same umbrella. But that decision also set the stage for a conflict that has challenged the University almost from its inception: The land-grant mandate to provide broad access to higher education sometimes runs counter to the demands for excellence and higher standards at institutions where professors do cutting-edge research.

The Mission
As University President Mark Yudof put it later: "We are Texas andTexas A & M. We are Michigan State and Michigan." Indeed, he and others spoke openly of their hope to make Minnesota one of the top five public research universities in the United States. But Yudof and others also spoke of the need for the University, as a land-grant institution, to provide access to those who are not fully prepared for the rigors ofcollege or who have historically not had access to higher education.

The Need for Focus
There was plenty of disagreement about what direction the University should take. Dan Carr of The Collaborative, a business that serves entrepreneurs and emerging growth companies, said its primary goal should be to provide "human capital" for business; it should, secondarily, help high-tech companies by supporting research. Carr compared the debate about the University's future to similar discussions about the state's economy. The state, he said, "must choose some specific [economic] clusters to invest in. We need to focus; we need to pick our clusters. Perhaps the University is going to have to make some of those tough decisions too."

But as soon as Carr sat down, Jay Miskowiec, an instructor of journalism at Minneapolis Community and Technical College - who acknowledged there is "probably room for consolidation" at the University - decried "this trend toward a corporate model at the university, where things are governed by cost-benefit analysis." He argued in favor of preserving liberal arts programs, without regard to"whether something fits into some economic cluster model."

MnSCU and the University of Minnesota
Certainly the higher education landscape of Minnesota has changed radically since the University was founded 150 years ago. Perhaps the most significant change, suggested Dean Barkley, the Director of Minnesota Planning (and Jesse Ventura's former campaign manager), is the establishment of the sprawling statewide MnSCU system. "Are there some things the U maybe does not have to do any more because of the MnSCU system?" he asked.

Prepare Enlightened Citizens
Peg Chamberlain, the executive director of the Minnesota Council of Churches, said the land-grant charge to "prepare an enlightened citizenry" complements the University's role as an economic engine providing both research and workers. "One is about [fostering] private wealth," she said. "But there is no private wealth without the commonwealth. Let us not, in our envisioning, separate out access and excellence as if they were two different things."

How Elite Will the University Be
Responding to a suggestion that the University might become more like the University of Michigan, which has higher academic standards and charges higher tuition, Gerald Fischer, president of the University of Minnesota Foundation, said, "Minnesotans have always distrusted elitism. There's a lot of elitism at the University of Michigan. The University does the best job, probably, of any university in the country of balancing access with excellence. The beauty of that is that we can provide excellence for everyone."

Prepare Students of Color
And Victoria Davis, the education chair for the St. Paul NAACP, pressed the University not to trim programs but to expand efforts to fulfill its historic mission by implementing a permanent, comprehensive plan to make the University more diverse and to increase the graduationrate for African-Americans and other students of color.

Focus, Make Choices
One of the few who argued for a fundamental redefinition of the University's mission was David Strom, legislative director of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, who objected to suggestions that the University "should try to be all things to all people," and, at the same time, could aspire to be a truly great research university. "I think those things are ultimately incompatible," he added. "The University of Minnesota should focus on a mission of bringing excellence to Minnesota. And the only way to do that is to choose. You have to focus."

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Panelists included:
· Wendell Anderson - Former Minnesota Governor, former Regent, University of Minnesota
· Peggy Leppik - Republican State Representative and Chair of the House Higher Education Finance Committee
· Pamela A. Wheelock - Commissioner, Minnesota Department of Finance
· Deanna Wiener - Democratic State Senator and Chair of the Senate Higher Education Budget Division
· Mark Yudof - President, University of Minnesota

President Yudof:

We Have Made Choices
To begin the second half of the Town Meeting, during which a panel of experts discussed the University's future, President Yudof described how administrators have already done the sort of focusing and belt-tightening anticipated by Governor Ventura's lean budget proposal. During his tenure, Yudof said, the University has worked hard to improve undergraduate education, has shifted substantial amounts of money to high-priority departments like agriculture and biotechnology, and has cut $33 million in administrative costs. "I think we have made choices," he said. "We have focused." And more focusing is to come: In Yudof's vision, for example, the medical school would focus on developing just ten "world-class" departments.

Medical School and the State's Well Being
The debate about the University's future, Yudof pointed out, has profound implications for everyone who lives in Minnesota. The Academic Health Center, for example, educates a majority of the state's physicians, as well as many of its dentists, nurses, pharmacists and other health care professionals; a top-quality medical school might mean the difference between life and death for someone from rural Minnesota who has leukemia. "The medical school has been falling over time," Yudofsaid. "The governor, to his great credit, did put significant funds in for the medical school, but there are more things that need to be done."

Become A Top Five Public Research Institution
Yudof boldly stated his goal of making Minnesota one of the top five public research institutions in the country. At the same time, he added,the University can't be all things to all people; it must graduallyfocus its efforts. "It is like steering a large ship," he said. "Youdon't do it all overnight."

Nor can it be done without good people, Yudof added. "Without the people to carry out these programs, they don't work. It really is, if you will, like the NFL. If you're hiring a molecular biologist, you're either in the market or you're not. If you want to do that work, you pay the price. If you don't want to pay the price, then don't get in thebusiness in the first place."

Deanna Wiener, Democratic state senator and chair of the Senate Higher Education Budget Division, agreed saying, competition does not come without money. She said, "If we want to be competitive we are going to have to decide, where do we want to compete." She told of a top cancer researcher at the University being offered substantially more money by another university. Without adequate compensation we will lose that kind of faculty, she said, "because they are not going to stay out of the goodness of their heart."

Do Both More and Less
"I think we have to do both more and less," Yudof concluded "We may need to pare back, but then there are other ways, [in which] we probably need to do more than we're doing now, and be more engaged."

The other panelists:

Leppik: MnSCU vs. University of Minnesota Choices
State Representative Peggy Leppik, a Republican who chairs the House Higher Education Finance Committee, saw a tension between the needs of the university and those of MNSCU. "We can't afford to maintain both of these systems with the resources that we've chosen to give to higher education," she argued.

Wheelock: Consider Directly Subsidizing Students
Department of Finance Commissioner Pamela Wheelock argued that a more mobile society, which encourages competition among geographically distant universities for students and research money, all but requires the University to focus where it has a competitive advantage. She also suggested that the state consider ways of encouraging competition for students, such as directly subsidizing students rather than the University--giving students a choice of where to spend tuition money.

Anderson: We Can Have both Access and Excellence
When Gary Eichten asked panelists a question he had asked the audience whether Minnesota should move to a more selective, University of Michigan-type model, with lesser students being steered to MnSCU--former Minnesota governor and University regent Wendell Anderson quickly rejected the idea as unnecessary. "I feel strongly we can have access, and we can have excellence," he said."We don't have the option to be a University of Michigan," Representative Leppik added. "The University of Michigan is not a land-grant university. We have a different mission here, a far more inclusive mission, that includes education and teaching, research, and outreach."

Anderson: A University and a Corporation Are Different
Anderson drew cheers - the first of the afternoon - by saying, "You don't run a great research university like a corporation." He quoted another former Governor, Elmer Andersen, a long-time CEO, as saying,"'You have to nurture a research university, and you have to give it adequate resources.'"The Governor's budget disappoints me," Anderson added. "There have been other budgets presented by a governor during difficult times that I thought shortchanged the university. This is the first budget that I've ever seen, during a period of surplus, that shortchanges not only the University but education in general. I believe, [we should give] more dollars for education. It's a great return."

Strengthen Ties with Urban Schools
Patricia Harvey, superintendent of the St. Paul public schools, picked up on this theme, encouraging University administrators to strengthen ties with urban schools and to encourage the state's best students to stay at home. She suggested offering incentives such as free tuition; in response, Yudof cited a program in Georgia, which guarantees free tuition to in-state students who maintain a certain grade point average in high school. The president called the lack of cooperation between colleges and metropolitan school districts a "disgrace" and said he was deeply bothered by the University's and other institutions' failure to serve students of color better.

Support the University
A second and final burst of applause was reserved for Tom Swain, a retired St. Paul Companies executive, who argued that a prestigious university will help to attract top faculty and graduate students. "I've got a burning feeling that the current number that is before the legislature from the governor is mostly inadequate," he added. "I'm 80 years old. I've paid my taxes. I stay here. I haven't bailed out. I feel that it's an honor to continue to pay taxes. And the most important thing, to me, is to retain the viability of this institution."