The silent crisis in Minnesota's higher education

fedgazette Editorial

Nils Hasselmo

Published December 1, 1990  | December 1990 issue

In a speech this fall in Rochester, Minn.—before the University's Board of Regents and Rochester community leaders—Nils Hasselmo told of an underlying crisis in higher education. Following are excerpts from that speech, including Hasselmo's call for immediate cross-state cooperation between Upper Midwest universities.

It is no accident that Minnesota has prospered over the years, both culturally and economically. The Lake Superior/Mississippi River corridor constitutes America's "fourth coast," as the University's Design Center for American Urban Landscape has recently put it. Like the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf Coasts, this is a region where many flags move, where goods and services are transformed and marketed, and where cultures rub each other in a creative tension. It is an exciting and challenging place, one where hard-working people who live by their wits can live well.

The key is "living by our wits." The opportunities offered by the region must be grasped and reshaped, and this requires people with ready minds. Minnesota has long recognized this, and has an enviable record of support for education. The same, of course, must be said about Rochester, illustrated not only by the long-standing cooperation in higher education, but most recently by the Rochester Public School District's exciting new program for educational innovation and reform at the K-12 level.

At the state level, our circumstances can be understood by considering some simple truths about higher education in Minnesota:

  • Minnesotans are willing to make sacrifices to support higher education. In 1988-89, the people of this state ranked sixth in the nation in per capita expenditures on higher education.
  • Our young (and older) people also take advantage of what we offer more avidly than in other states. An astounding 87 percent of Minnesota high school graduates enter a post-secondary institution within five years of their graduation from high school.
  • But, because of these two conditions operating together, even though we try to support higher education well, what we provide has to be spread thinly to cover our large number of individual students—and we teach individual students, not numbers. Our expenditure per student is actually 12 percent below the national average; we ranked 20th in the nation in 1988-89.

This is the silent crisis of higher education in Minnesota: noble aspirations to provide educational opportunities that are undermined by having to spread the money too thinly.

The crisis is "silent" in part because it has developed gradually, with no dramatic turning point, and in part because it has not been raised for public discussion since the ways to address the crisis may cause pain of one sort or another.

It is a "crisis" for several reasons. It occurs at a time when the need for higher education is greater than ever, if the "fourth coast" is going to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Today we see dramatic new demands for knowledge, for its application, and for knowledgeable people; new demands for full participation by all groups in our more and more racially and ethnically diverse society; and new demands for higher education to work with the K-12 systems and with continuing adult learners. Further, as we face these demands we will have to deal with a severe national shortage of faculty; some of those shortages are already with us, while others are just around the corner.

This crisis comes at a time when there are not many new resources available to us. The state is in a holding pattern in all areas, and we face the possibility of sharp cuts in federal support. Clearly, simply demanding more resources for higher education is not realistic. We must and will continue to present our case as forcefully as we can, but any effort to increase support must demonstrate that we in higher education are providing a quality product, will make tough decisions, and will be responsible leaders.

There are many things we can do. What are they? Let me concentrate on some things that we at the University can—and will—do, and to some extent are already doing.

There are three major areas that I believe deserve special attention. In each area we must strive for greater effectiveness. This means giving the state and nation more for the resources invested.

The three areas are:

  1. Internal effectiveness of the University. How can we, the University of Minnesota, provide more for the resources invested?
  2. The effectiveness of higher education in Minnesota as a whole. How can we, the University of Minnesota, work with the public and private institutions in the state to provide more for the resources invested?
  3. The effectiveness of higher education in the North Central region. How can we, the University of Minnesota, work with institutions in Wisconsin, Iowa and the Dakotas to provide more for the resources invested?

What I have to say is based on a fundamental assumption: We want a quality product. We want quality teaching, quality research, and quality public service and outreach.

The choices we face as an institution will involve consolidation, curtailment or elimination of some programs or services, because other institutions can provide those programs or services, or because we decide we can, and must, do without them. Improved efficiency within programs or services is not a choice, but an imperative.

And, please note the fundamental underlying principle: We must make some negative choices in order to be able to make positive choices—positive choices for higher quality in what we do do, positive choices for new things that we must do.

Cross-State Cooperation

We must work to increase the effectiveness of higher education in the entire North Central region of states. Wisconsin, Iowa and the Dakotas share with us a marked concern for quality education on the one hand, but relatively small tax bases on the other. We will gain efficiency if we coordinate our offerings, particularly in specialized areas. I am a realist about the political difficulty of coordinating programs across state borders, but I also cannot believe that 30 years from now we will not be operating a greater number of coordinated programs. And if that is so, we might as well get to work on them sooner rather than later.

Just as they can within the state, systems of higher education across the five state area could accomplish much by cooperation. For instance, institutions in our region—in various fields—could coordinate their planning in graduate and professional instruction much better than they now do, with considerable potential savings of resources combined with real improvements in quality. The idea would be to maximize the use of special opportunities and allow each university—perhaps—to curtail or eliminate some specialties because they are available at another university, or perhaps most importantly, to be selective in establishing costly new specialties or facilities.

Much is already being done. For example, the chairs of the horticulture departments at Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa State have been meeting for the last few years to coordinate their planning so that each department will specialize in different areas of horticulture, but share the results of their research among the three departments. My counterpart at one of our sister institutions and I have asked our graduate deans to explore areas that may be suitable for further coordination and cooperation.

Finally, cross-state coordination can enhance the regional planning that we need to undertake here in Minnesota. Campuses in neighboring states that are near our borders obviously need to be included in regional planning efforts for northeast, southeast, northwest and southwest Minnesota, and for that matter for the metropolitan area as well.

I have suggested at the beginning of my speech that we are caught in a silent crisis of higher education. It is a crisis arising out of the challenges of the times in which we live—and I have only nibbled at these challenges. It is a crisis arising out of our satisfaction—are we really satisfied—with some numbers—the counting of heads—and a certain lack of concern for some other numbers—the measures of quality. Of the two "Q words," "Quantity" and "Quality," we have paid much attention to quantity, but not enough to quality. We've done well in regard to quantity—not so well with quality.

In order to meet these challenges: we must put special efforts into defining even more closely what each institution should do, into improving the internal effectiveness of each system, and into coordinating higher education across the North Central states—while we continue to compete for scarce state resources. We must do this at the same time as we address the special challenges of building diversity, both as a matter of social justice and, as a matter of enlightened self-interest, since tapping currently under-utilized talent pools is obviously an important strategy for dealing with the growing national shortage of available faculty. And, we absolutely must improve our linkages with the K-12 systems.

If, through all these steps, we address the education crisis successfully, what sort of higher education should we expect to have? Lying behind my argument of what we should do is my vision of what we should be.

I see a state in which all who pursue post-secondary education receive quality education, at whatever level they study—a state that, as it provides broad access, is willing to pay for access to quality—or why not access to excellence—but a state that also demands that we use the dollars provided to us with care, so that none are wasted through duplication or inefficiency. In, short, I see a state which provides its students a wide variety of types of institutions depending on their needs, all of excellent quality, and all of these opening the eyes of our students to the rich cultural diversity of the society in which we live and work, and to the broad world that reaches our "fourth coast" everyday.