"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

UMM defying the odds with its success?

Maybe we should pinch ourselves to see if we're dreaming. Morris history has it that UMM was on wobbly legs in its early days. Today it seems rock solid and even picking up steam. A new dormitory got built: the "green dorm."
Lest we think this stability is no big deal, consider what is happening at some other colleges around Minnesota. Moorhead State has storm clouds over it. The Star Tribune gave us the recent headline: "Moorhead U eyes drastic cuts."
The institution was called "Moorhead State College" when I was young, then it became "University," then we saw the change to the cumbersome name "Minnesota State University-Moorhead (MSUM)." Clarity was better served when the name started out with the city name. At any rate, adjusting the name hasn't appeared to help.
"Facing dropping enrollment and a $5 million deficit," the Star Tribune article read, "the state university in Moorhead says it may cut or eliminate programs in more than half of its departments, mostly affecting the liberal arts."
The liberal arts! This is what our University of Minnesota-Morris has always stood for. The conventional wisdom out and about, is that the venerated "liberal arts" are prime candidates for cutbacks. And yet our UMM shows no signs of being in panic mode, as might be suggested about MSUM.
The November 28 Star Tribune article continued: "Last week, officials at Minnesota State University-Moorhead notified chairs of 18 of its 31 departments that they could face significant cutbacks in fields such as philosophy, mass communications, history, political science, theater arts and English."
A column in the online journal Slate gives MSUM's retrenchment national attention. Slate treated the issues at MSUM like they might be indicative of what's happening nationally. Thus MSUM becomes something of a poster child. 
We're reminded of when the Wall Street Journal made the U of M its poster child for alleged administrative bloat at education institutions. Remember that?
Institutions recoil at such attention. They deny such assertions or, more often, suggest that facts are misinterpreted, cherry-picked or taken out of context. The defensiveness is understandable. Institutions are organisms with self-interest to pursue. They may be facing forces of change that are simply a consequence of the world we live in today.
Those who resist those forces can be seen as like the old baseball scouts in the movie "Moneyball," shocked and angry over how their profession was being transformed.
The pinch felt in Duluth
Let's move past Moorhead State and its woes. Elsewhere in Minnesota we are seeing similar spasms. My oh my, it's even happening within the U of M system, meaning the 'U' itself can't be viewed as a sacred cow. The U of M at Duluth intends to cut $12 million over the next five years. Officials say they'll identify most of the first wave of cuts on February 1. The school could see the elimination of up to two low-enrollment degrees. Plus there's talk of layoffs of part-time faculty, and consolidation of some academic departments.
We learn from the MPR "On Campus" blog that UMD is reviewing every program and service, academic and non-academic, to see if it might be scaled back.
Prudent though this might be, it's kind of a bummer to work in this kind of situation. When will we as a society get tired of this mantra of consolidation and efficiencies? In theory such aims are fine. I do feel maximum efficiency makes people weary, like zombies after a while.
The pinch felt in Northfield
For as long as I can remember, Northfield, that place where the James gang was crushed, has had two colleges: Carleton and St. Olaf. For most of my life, that situation was deemed just fine. In theory, though, two colleges in a community the size of Northfield seems rather clunky and impractical.
Now, that reality is being acknowledged. We learn from the MPR blog (managed most capably by Alex Friedrich) that "St. Olaf and Carleton are teaming up to save costs. A $1.4 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation will have them jointly run some areas of their information technology, administration and even academic programming."
The St. Olaf president is quoted saying that such sharing promotes efficiency. The Carleton president talks about the possibility of "joint courses" between the two schools.
Why now? Often, "consolidation" is a reflection of decline. A merger of the two schools might even be practical. By staying separate, though, they can keep their respective donors in a better mood for continuing to cut the checks.
I don't think Jonathan Capehart would be pleased if the schools merged. Capehart is a favorite social and political commentator of mine. He's often on the "Morning Joe" panel on MSNBC television. He's a product of Carleton College, class of 1989, and mentions this occasionally for his national audience. He's African-American and sometimes speaks from the perspective of that historically disadvantaged faction. I was amused when someone designed a custom coffee mug honoring Capehart, a mug with a drawing that caricatured Capehart with extra-large glasses. I wish I could obtain this mug.
I attended a state university which I'm sure is grappling with the same challenges as Moorhead State. I know for a fact that St. Cloud State has undergone some streamlining. Is more in store? Might it be like a snowball rolling downhill? Do you not dare let this process start?
St. Cloud State made headlines when it canceled Homecoming. This was a desperation move by the institution to rid itself of its rather celebrated reputation for frivolity. There was a time when people thought this reputation was cute. "Oh, look at those cute kids, setting fires to dumpsters for Homecoming."
But we live in more serious times today. We look at the objectives for school and we insist that the school focus entirely on those objectives. Or else. 
Or else there will be funding cuts and a drop in enrollment.
At Moorhead State - I can't bring myself to always call it "Minnesota State University-Moorhead" - the president actually said some decline in enrollment was intentional. Hoo boy. They must really be whistling past the graveyard. I mean, when you have to spin bad news as good.
We learn that in 2010, Moorhead State decided it was admitting too many unqualified students. The institution began referring these students to community and technical colleges, you know, the schools that take all the dummies (LOL).
The MSUM president stated that for many years, 15-20 per cent of the freshmen who were admitted didn't meet its published admission standards. Moorhead wasn't alone. We hear "it was a common practice at many universities as they struggled to keep their classrooms full." 
And, "many of the students were failing."
I often feel as though institutions of higher learning make knowledge seem too elusive. Young people actually do want to learn. They just need to feel as though their learning is going to be relevant to their future. Colleges make knowledge seem elusive or distant partly out of self-interest. If such knowledge were easily grasped, we might not need such well-credentialed professors who are able to make a living doing this. The students end up like the rabbit chasing the carrot on the stick.
Today of course, we can all bypass educational institutions of all types and access knowledge online - no limitations at all.
Is this reality the biggest source of stress for college campuses now? The realization that, frankly, they simply aren't needed as much now? That they might be likened to those old baseball scouts in "Moneyball?"
Much of the knowledge gained in the liberal arts seems archaic. The Slate article about MSUM warned that "students best get their Romeo and Juliet now, because schools like Moorhead may soon have no department of English, physics or history."
We might put Mozart and Beethoven beside Romeo and Juliet. Such subject matter seems elite/highbrow with its status. But is the status becoming empty and irrelevant? To be blunt, the music of the Beatles reflects as much sophistication and artistic craftsmanship as the so-called "classical" composers.
Why is it that the creations of long ago are treated as so special? There's no rational reason. You can actually argue that Edgar Allan Poe abused the English language. And yet his works are propped up in academia. Many talented and inspired people are at work today, giving us materials that have just as much merit, but we're not supposed to be as awestruck by people doing it today.
OK, people are steadily seeing through those pretensions. The electronic media revolution has been totally liberating and democratizing. Special knowledge is no longer exclusive.
We may already be able to assert we simply don't need college libraries anymore. Ouch. 
The realities are setting in at Moorhead State, that "poster child" in the eyes of Slate. Or St. Cloud State, that school which once prompted amusement with its status as "party college."
No more amusement. No more status quo. No more entitled feeling, based only on the suggested virtues of "higher education."
Higher education is in a jungle now, a jungle in which it must confront the buzzwords of "efficiency" and "consolidation." 
As "Count Floyd" of the old SCTV television show would say: "Brrrr, scary."
Except at the University of Minnesota-Morris. At least not yet. Let's pinch ourselves.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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