MnSCU to colleges: work as a team

MARSHALL ? Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU), the largest higher education system in Minnesota and one of the largest in the nation, recently released a report called “Charting the Future for a Prosperous Minnesota,” which suggests the time has come for institutions to plan and act more like a team, with the goal of working together in collaboration instead of independently as institutions have done in the past.

The hope is to better serve the students and state workforce by regularly bringing together the best thinking across the colleges and universities to solve problems and create opportunities for students while also increasing revenue and reducing costs.

The new way of thinking was initiated by MnSCU Chancellor Steven Rosenstone, who charged three workgroups – Education System of the Future, Workforce of the Future and System of the Future – to recommend ways for the colleges and universities to best contribute to Minnesota’s prosperity in an ever-changing economic, technological and demographic environment.

A total of 46 students, faculty, staff, presidents and trustees made up the three workgroups, which met eight to nine times between December 2012 and May 2013. A draft of recommendations was presented to the MnSCU Board of Trustees in June 2013. Feedback was then collected from more than 5,400 students, faculty and staff, who took part in more than 100 feedback sessions across the state during a five-month period.

“A lot of people were involved in this,” Southwest Minnesota State University President Dr. Connie Gores said. “There were thousands of comments received and hours put in by these teams of faculty, staff, students, administration and board and trustee members. They formed these different workgroups to identify challenges and suggest possibilities to address those challenges. It’s lots of good work.”

Although MnSCU has served as a single system since 1995, most of Minnesota’s 31 state colleges and universities basically operate independently, oftentimes competing with each other for the same students. The new plan is grounded in interconnectedness and collaboration as a way to advance institutional interests and partner more effectively.

“We’re interested in enhancing our academic excellence and distinctiveness,” Gores said. “We’re also interested in creating a holistic experience for the students, enhancing in the classroom and out of the classroom, and we are very much interested in increasing our partnerships and collaborations. All of that should benefit the students and move us forward as a university.”

Six recommendations to increase access, affordability, excellence and service came forward in the final report:

Dramatically increase the success of all learners, especially those in diverse populations traditionally underserved by higher education

Develop a collaborative and coordinated academic planning process that advances affordability, transferability and access to programs and services across the state

Certify student competencies and capabilities, expand pathways to accelerate degree completion through credit for prior learning and foster the award of competency-based credit and degrees

Expand the innovative use of technology to deliver high quality online courses, strengthen classroom instruction and student services and provide more individualized learning and advising

Work together under new models to be the preferred provider of comprehensive workplace solutions through programs and services that build employee skills and solve real-world problems for communities and businesses across the state

Redesign financial and administrative models to reward collaboration, drive efficiencies and strengthen ability to provide access to an extraordinary education for all Minnesotans

Rosenstone is expected to implement a plan to trustees next month. The transformation process will likely take three to four years.

“The way I look at it is, going forward as a system, we really need to work on what works best for students,” Gores said. “If institutions can partner more effectively, that will benefit the students. If we can enhance the transfer opportunities, that will benefit the students. If we can enhance the delivery system, both online and in person, that will benefit the students. If we can identify and support programs that the students need and want, that will help them, so that’s the approach that SMSU will be taking.”

While some critics of the report question whether more collaboration means more control in the system office, others, like Gores, believe that collaboration and coordination can be powerful tools which can utilize the distinct strengths of each college and university.

The approach provides access and opportunity to all MnSCU institutions but gives each institution authority to make individual decisions based on what is in each one’s best interest.

“I think as a system, we will look at what it means as a whole, and each institution will look at what it means for them individually,” Gores said. “I will predict that institutions will have some facets that may differ from others. One size does not fit all. We don’t know exactly what the implications will be, but that’s where our creativity and innovation can come into play.”

Gores said she envisions that the new way of thinking will be more, not less, empowering for SMSU.

“All of us will have influence in how we implement the recommendations,” she said. “Nothing is going to be handed down from the system office saying you must do this. They won’t dictate but delegate more responsibility to each institution to design their own future.”

Gores anticipates the presidents and institutions will start talking about how they will begin implementing the recommendations. She believes that it is important for SMSU to address its own needs as well as the needs of the region and the greater region, too.

“It reinforces to me that we are truly the architects of our own future,” Gores said. “We’re at an important point where we can truly build toward a positive future. And no one will do this for us. We have to be right there in the middle of this action.”

That reality sits well with Gores, who is in her first year as president at SMSU.

“We have to thank the people involved in the workgroups, but the work is just beginning,” she said. “That’s OK because SMSU knows how to solve problems, so I have hopes that we’ll be actively involved in this. We want to be in this position. We want to design our future. This (plan) helps us be able to do that, by working in collaboration with our partners across the system.”

For more information on the new plan, go to: