"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)

Monday, September 19, 2016

Johnson staying to deal with new pressures?

Jacqueline Johnson
The big headline in the University Register says Jacqueline Johnson is sticking around a little longer. She has postponed retirement as UMM chancellor. The University Register is available for free at Casey's. It's on a newsstand right next to the newsstand where three other papers are available for payment. I'm always a little nervous just grabbing a Register as I walk out there, so I'll say to the clerk "this is free, right?"
UMM had a campus paper, "Northstar," that supposedly required payment if you wanted more than one copy. That policy was just a naked ploy to catch and prosecute people who might be tempted, for very legitimate reasons, to remove copies from campus because of offensive and ridiculous content.
Our University of Minnesota-Morris went through an awkward period known as a "chancellor search." It proceeded as planned until an embarrassing complication. The person they chose withdrew. The company line about this was: personal reasons. Rodney Hanley apparently had personal reasons for not wanting to come here and accept this prestigious position. What happened? Did he suddenly find out that all the lakes were around Alexandria and not Morris? Here's a nice little game you can play in Morris these days: see who can compile the longest list of well-known people who have moved from Morris to Alexandria.

Strings pulled behind scenes?
I have wondered if certain factions associated with UMM developed concerns about whether the new guy would really work out. An individual with whom I spoke said Hanley "didn't have the background" appropriate for taking the reins. Hanley certainly had to have a good resume to get as far as he did in the process. If not, a pox on the search committee.
No, I think that in this point in time, there may be some alarm bells ringing for our U of M-Morris, making it essential that the chancellor have all the background needed to deal with particular pressing issues. A newcomer might flail away for a while. It may be, this is no time for a glad-handing guy to show up and just give rosy speeches about the liberal arts. Behind the scenes there may be some real pressing matters.
My basis for thinking this, partly, is the news coming out of UMM's cousin in Duluth: the U of M-Duluth. The pressing matters there are right out in the open. We learn that "about $2 million in cuts to academic programs this fall will mark the next step in the University of Minnesota-Duluth's long slog through reducing an annual deficit that once was more than $9 million."
Three of the five colleges that make up UMD will bear the brunt of the fiscal pain, and one of them is - no surprise - the College of Liberal Arts. UMM's brand throughout its history has been liberal arts. The other two colleges facing adversity at Duluth are School of Fine Arts and the College of Education and Human Service Professions.
It's no surprise to learn the two colleges that are being largely spared at this time. One is the Labovitz School of Business and Economics.
Chris Matthews of MSNBC has bemoaned this big trend among young people to gravitate to "business" as a major in college. In previous times, they'd get attracted to stimulating fields of study like theology and history. Then the lure of material gains took hold, so "business" became sort of a mantra, mastering "the deal." Fine, but the refined nature of all these studies, with the ultimate criterion for determining success on "the bottom line," likely contributed to the financial crisis of 2008 with its awful consequences for so many, along with the current Wells Fargo bank scandal.
All this scheming and manipulating just to try to show you're some sort of "business" genius.
Matthews pronounced "business" with a dismissive air.
No doubt, making money is important. An obsessive approach to this can lead to all sorts of rule-breaking that could bring the whole house of cards down. In a previous time, a firm set of ethics was instilled that kept people from crossing certain lines.
In the new world of "business majors," systems were designed entirely with maximum profit as the goal. Why is the head person at Wells Fargo not forced out immediately? Instead he spews the predictable cover-your-ass rhetoric, saying his company really stands for lofty things. I hope he didn't say "mistakes were made" (passive voice).
The other college at UMD that can breathe a sigh of relief is the Swenson College of Science and Engineering. Ah, science! Science will always be spared the budget ax. Elements of the humanities have actually learned to ape the sciences, borrowing its language or its nuances to try to exude an air of science. "Iambic pentameter" in poetry. It's a mostly losing cause, but the humanities are at least trying to steal a little of the gold dust from science's saddlebags.
A UMD administrator said "unfortunately, many programs in the liberal arts are declining." School of Fine Arts Dean Bill Payne has to reduce his budget by $400,000 this year. UMD has an aim of cutting from five colleges to three. So, two deans would be eliminated. The current UMD deficit is $4.3 million. All areas of UMD have been asked to reduce expenses by one percent to save $1 million.
Enrollment decline, meaning less tuition revenue, and a recent period of less state funding doled out by the U of M, combine to put UMD in a position of cutting, which began a couple of years ago. Past reductions were made through dozens of voluntary layoffs and the merging of some programs. Enrollment peaked in 2011, and through last year dropped by about nine percent.
 
Demographic alarm bell
Minnesota has seen a decrease in high school-aged students! I was discussing this with a friend in Cold Spring recently. I mentioned to him how nearby St. Cloud State University was showing signs of stress. SCSU was a domain for the waves of boomer-age students. It was built for high capacity and not with the most sensitive standards for student comfort. The boomers more or less accepted the limitations. Today's students want more personalized attention, i.e. more pampering.
SCSU has given us "Coborn Plaza" which to date seems a financial boondoggle. The excuse is that it was built before the recession.
Dormitories built in the mid-20th Century, all across the country, are deemed unsatisfying, with many now coming under the wrecking ball, like good ol' Holes Hall at SCSU. But can colleges make adjustments fast enough?
To the extent MnSCU proclaims a "financial crisis," is it because of the stresses at SCSU, a bastion for students of an earlier time but an albatross today? A recent budget request has been described as a "bailout" for SCSU. A bailout here, a bailout there, and eventually you might have a sinking ship.
My Cold Spring friend and I discussed St. Cloud in general, and I mentioned that the hospital was like "a city unto itself." Very true. My friend supplied some interpretation: "Our hospitals are expanding while our colleges are crumbling. What does that say about the power of the boomer generation?"
The UMD administrator said the school is "looking into investments in online courses." Online! Here we may be getting to the heart of the situation, i.e. whether bricks and mortar institutions are still needed to the same extent, merely to infuse knowledge.
This is interesting, because for a long time we heard drastic predictions about what online was going to do to a great many institutions, including book publishing and newspapers. The predictions about ten years ago could be pretty dire, then we realized that many of the foreseen changes weren't going to happen so suddenly. We constantly see book authors discussing their new book on TV. Newspapers have survived albeit smaller. But I sense that recently, these institutions are renewing their defensive mode vs. the advances of online information. Maybe those initial predictions weren't so excessive after all.
The clock ticks and reality sets in: all the info in the world is online. Online connects us to information sources. We take connectivity for granted.
Last week's Morris MN paper was just 20 pages, in the middle of September, hardly a "dog days" time. The fall sports schedule page for MACA, normally ringed by those little "sig ads" (a ripoff in the first place), now has just a little group of "sponsors" in the middle of the page. Those few "sucker" holdouts may depart with time, leaving the Morris newspaper to just report the schedule as part of its purported news reporting mission, which it should have done all along.
 
An experienced hand needed?
Maybe Jacqueline Johnson is staying here because she's so much closer to the pressing issues coming down on public colleges, as opposed to a complete newcomer. The issues may require real vigilance, and maybe it will be a process of continual downsizing while saving face, the way UMD administration is doing. "The good news is that we are keeping quality high," the Duluth administrator said. Such quotes are easy to rehearse and dispense, and you can be sure the Fargo-owned happy-talk Morris newspaper will put such a quote on the front page.
But what is the reality? You can get more than a hint from the University Register article (free, I'll remind you): "Chancellor Johnson will be working with the campus in order to solve the problems of lower enrollment and a drop in retention rates after the 2012-13 academic year. She stresses, however, that it is 'a problem, not a crisis.' "
Then there's this paragraph: "Chancellor Johnson says that there is no simple answer to the problem of retention - there are emerging patterns, like modest GPA differences and extracurricular involvement, but no overarching conclusion. Competition from the Twin Cities campus is not helping either."
And then there's this: "UMM's New High School student and new Transfer student enrollment numbers were lower than expected in planning the budget for the 2016-2017 year, and the campus administration is working to better enrollment for next year."
In the end are we talking capitulation and downsizing? It may be inevitable in our changing, interconnected world. Forget about reviving the past. The survivors will be those who embrace reality. Here in Morris, where our sheer amenities are not great for attracting students, the retirement and then un-retirement of Jacquie Johnson has been disconcerting. It cannot be just "one of those things."
 
Addendum: There is an underlying trend that is seeping up into academia, causing a sense of crisis in many places. Ah, the new digital communication is by its nature "bottom up." Traditional academia is top-down. We're witnessing the monumental clash. It didn't happen overnight.
My boomer generation was determined to go to college but we really saw learning as a chore. Professors had to whip us as if we were a team of horses. Kids grow up today finding the learning process far more user-friendly. In other words, we are much more likely to become self-motivated in learning, to identify on our own the best pathways toward learning and knowledge. This is opposed to the old model of being force-fed knowledge in an inefficient, laborious process that made us want to detach from it much of the time.
We "crammed for finals" because we put off much of our serious study, as we found the process laborious and grating. We chose pizza and beer until deadlines loomed. This was not a fun way to learn, but such was the path the boomers followed. Not today. Today knowledge is inviting and exciting. The millennials are blessed.
How would they judge UMM's dormitories?
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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