Thursday, May 22, 2008

The instruction of youth and the welfare of the state

Northrop Auditorium
The University of Minnesota
Northrop Auditorium, 1929
Founded in the Faith that Men are Ennobled by Understanding
Dedicated to the Advancement of Learning and the Search for Truth
Devoted to the Instruction of Youth and the Welfare of the State

Let's read that again: Devoted to the Instruction of Youth and the Welfare of the State. So concludes the lofty and inspiring inscription on Northrop Auditorium, the architectural center of gravity on the Twin Cities campus of the University of Minnesota.

Northrop's inscription echoes the Morrill Land-Grant College Act of 1862, Act of July 2, 1862, ch.130, 12 Stat. 503 (codified as amended at 7 U.S.C. § 304), the legislative foundation of a network that now spans more than 100 colleges and universities in the United States and its territories. The original Morrill Act committed each state to establishing
Land grant collegesat least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes on the several pursuits and professions in life.
Amendments in 1890 and 1994 extended the land grant system to historically black colleges and universities and to Native American institutions. Collectively, land grant colleges represent access to higher education for an enormous number of working-class and nontraditional students. As I often say of my own school, the University of Louisville (which is not a land grant college but does serve a comparable mission in a metropolitan setting), these are the universities that serve first generations and provide second chances.

One of the keystones of the land grant system is affordability. For decades the cost of higher education has been increasing at a rate far outpacing that of middle class wages. The cost of elite education has risen even more rapidly. As Marie Reilly has explained in this forum, there is strong reason to suspect that universities have plowed the revenues from those tuition hikes into prestige-enhancing measures that deliver little if any value to students who are borrowing heavily for ever-decreasing returns on their educational investments. This is especially true at elite institutions. The contribution of land grant colleges and other public schools to educational access has never been greater, or more important.

Bill GleasonAll this is prologue to an important post by Bill Gleason, a faculty member in the University of Minnesota's department of laboratory medicine and pathology and the author of The Periodic Table. In Affordability at The University of Minnesota: Priorities for the Short and Long Term, Bill questions his university's commitment to access and affordability — the bedrock of the land grant system — as Minnesota's central administration continues its quixotic pursuit of its stated "aspiration to be one of the top three public research universities in the world." Herewith the remarks Bill made at a May 21, 2008, budget forum sponsored by the University of Minnesota's Board of Regents:

Mark Yudof was the 14th President of the University of Minnesota. He has recently been chosen to head the best public higher education system in the country. This is what he said in his U of M inaugural address:
Minnesotans expect us to be fair in providing access to the University for their sons and daughters.

If we do not provide reasonable access — including access for those who are underprepared and historically underrepresented in higher education and in the upper levels of our socioeconomic life, the taxpayers and state government of Minnesota will turn their backs on our graduate, research, and outreach functions.

Simply stated, it is imperative that we continue to embrace our land-grant roots if we are to thrive.
University of MinnesotaMy first point is that currently student debt is crushing and that the highest priority should be put on addressing this problem.

The claim that scholarships can offset fees and tuition is an empty one. The focus needs to shift to student debt.

According to Kiplinger, we have the highest average student loan debt of any (public) school in the Big Ten — $25,000.

And this is just an average. Undergraduates working in my lab have debts greater than this — people who were born in Vietnam, Poland, and the Ukraine. To give but one real example: both parents of one of my Vietnamese students work in an Austin meat-packing plant. She should be going to medical school, but informed me recently that she would have to seek employment immediately after graduation in order to pay off her debts.

Our Big Ten-leading student debt is simply unacceptable and taking steps to correct it should be of highest priority.

My second point is the hubris exhibited by our administration's continual parroting of the phrase: "ambitious aspiration to be one of the top three public research universities in the world."

As the faculty senate research committee put it last September:
Is this a time to be talking about getting into the top three? When units cannot maintain their research capacity, how can they get to the top three? There is little to suggest that the University is on an upward trajectory.
In response to perceived criticism, President Bruininks has said:
I've heard some of the 'doubters' say things like, I'd settle for best in the Big Ten. Students don't choose the University of Minnesota for (a) mediocre future.
We'd be extremely fortunate to be one of the best schools in the Big Ten. Continuing on with this Orwellian third best public research university in the world business, in light of reality, is an embarrassment and only serves to make us look naive and foolish.

To conclude, again with the words of Mark Yudof:
Some would urge the University to pull back on its land-grant responsibilities.

But at what cost? To save so little and destroy so much? Any short-term gain to research or graduate and professional programs occasioned by cutbacks to the core will be self-defeating. The result will be a decreased level of public support for the entire University enterprise. The University is built on its undergraduate program. If the foundation cracks, the whole edifice is in jeopardy.

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