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Universal U: Dueling Missions
By Tim Pugmire, February 2001
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Throughout its history, the University of Minnesota has struggled with its dueling missions of academic access and academic excellence. The U of M's General College has been at the heart of much of that debate. Some say the General College is an essential entry point for students, who have yet to reach their academic potential. Others argue that role is better served by the state's community colleges.

University of Minnesota President Mark Yudof (shown here with Rep. Peggy Leppik while lobbying at the Capitol in January) says his goal is to place Minnesota among the top-five public research universities in the nation. But, he says the university must preserve and strengthen its undergraduate foundation. Listen to Tim Pugmire's interview with Yudof.
The University of Minnesota today looks a lot like the comprehensive institution of higher learning its founders envisioned 150 years ago. Enrollment is 59,000 spread over four campuses. The 19 colleges offer 161 bachelor degrees, 218 masters degrees and 114 doctoral degrees. Historian Ann Pflaum says the university's first president, William Watts Folwell, looked toward the big eastern universities when he began establishing the wide reaching academic curriculum in 1869.

"He came from upstate New York, so he knew Cornell University, and his vision was of a university where you could study everything from Plato to hog cholera. And there was an enormous breadth in the curriculum that he set in motion," Pflaum says.

But the founders' vision of a "Harvard on the prairie" was tempered by the university's land grant roots. The Morrill Act of 1862 gave each state a gift of land to fund public higher education, with significant strings attached. The act required research of direct benefit to the people of the state and an open door for the region's working class.

Almost immediately, the institution felt a tension between the pursuits of access and excellence. That tension heightened in 1932, when President Lotus Coffman created a "General College" within the university for students who wanted a two-year degree.

David Taylor, the dean of the general college since 1989, says the university began admitting more students than would normally be accepted.

"There were faculty even at that point who wanted to the university to reflect the Harvard mentality, as opposed to other faculty who felt as a land-grant institution we should be accessible to a broader array of students from the constituencies that we're supposed to serve," said Taylor.

1932: University of Minnesota President Lotus Coffman establishes General College and two-year degree.

1986: Board of Regents decides to phase out certificate and degree programs in General College.

1989: David Taylor becomes dean of General College.

1996: President Nils Hasslemo proposes closing of General College: Board of Regents rejects plan.

1997: President Mark Yudof stresses support for General College during inaugural speech.

In a classroom at the University of Minnesota's General College, students gather around a computer monitor as professor Terry Collins demonstrates the online research tools they will use to complete several writing assignments for the semester.

The college no longer offers degrees. Its mission now is to help a limited number of students who fall below regular admissions requirements. The goal is to prepare them for transfer into degree-granting programs.

Terry Collins also directs the college's academic affairs and its developmental education curriculum.

"Developmental education means helping people develop toward those expectations that institutions like this have for them, when maybe decisions they've made in the past or their access to resources in the past haven't put them in an ideal position to be fully prepared," according to Collins.

Professor Terry Collins, of the university's General College, shows student Megan Kane how to access online references for a writing assignment.
(MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire)

Enrollment at the General College is just over 1,900 students. Freshman admissions are targeted at 825 per year, or less than 20 percent of the university's incoming class. Students of color make up about 30 percent of the General College population compared to 14 percent systemwide.

Class sizes are kept small, so students get more personal attention from their professors. First-year student Megan Kane of Bloomington says it's an approach she needs.

"If I was starting at one of the bigger colleges with more students and less attention, then I think I would have been a little overwhelmed," says Kane.

Terry Collins and other administrators point to university alumnus Norman Borlaug as the ultimate proof that General College serves a valuable purpose. Borlaug won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his work to increase food production in developing countries. He failed his university entrance exam in the 1930s and became one of the first General College students.

"You don't want to keep out the next Norman Borlaug. You don't want to keep out people with talent just because their history maybe doesn't make them look like an ideal. These are good people and they're going to do good things," says Collins.

But university administrators were ready to abandon the General College role in 1996. Faced with a tight budget, then-President Nils Hasselmo proposed closing the college, because too few students were moving on to graduate. After weeks of heated debate, the university's Board of Regents rejected the plan.

David Taylor, the dean of the General College since 1989, says the university has been admitting more students than would normally be accepted.
David Taylor says the fight to justify General College, like the fight over the university's mission, will never end.

"That tension continues to exist and has been the fuel around which this college has derived its energy; our fortunes have waxed or waned depending who was administratively in power," says Taylor.

The General College currently enjoys strong support from President Mark Yudof, who stressed its importance in his 1997 inaugural address. Yudof says the university should provide access to "those who are underprepared and historically under-represented in higher education."

"In a university that spends a little under $2 billion a year, there should be a place in the university for a second chance," says Yudof.

Yudof's goal is to place Minnesota among the top five public research universities in the nation. But at the same time he says the university must preserve and strengthen its undergraduate foundation. Yudof says access has been the covenant between the university and the people of Minnesota for 150 years.

"I look at it as to say you: We will support, but you have to give our sons and daughters a fair shake. You can't gouge them on the tuition, and you need to treat them like human beings when they arrive on this campus and be attentive to their needs. That is the basic core principal, the foundation of the University of Minnesota. If we fail at that, we fail," says Yudof.

Dean David Taylor says the General College today is smaller but more effective. Over the past decade, the second year retention rate for General College students has steadily improved. The number of students successfully transferring to the College of Liberal Arts or degree programs within the U of M has also increased.

"If you have someone coming in whose skills aren't where they ought to be, and who constitutes a risk, and deliver them as a product of the institution, what greater tribute is there to an institution that's able to do that?" asks Taylor.

The General College is now helping bridge the divide between the university's teaching and research missions. Taylor says the professors have turned their classrooms into laboratories to study the broader implications of Developmental Education. He says other universities are now turning to Minnesota to learn how to better serve their own underprepared students.

Tim Pugmire covers education issues for Minnesota Public Radio. Reach him via e-mail at