It’s been said that many of the longest-operating organizations in the world are institutions of higher education. While industries have evolved, the Fortune 500 list has turned over, and political boundaries have formed and changed, the higher education system has held relatively constant. In fact, the University of Minnesota, Hamline University, Saint John’s University, and Winona State University were founded before Minnesota even became a state in 1858. Many of our other public and private schools have been educating students for over a century.
The longstanding higher education tradition in Minnesota is mostly a good story for Minnesota. It has helped us build a world-class workforce, which has enabled decades of relative prosperity.
However, sometimes, strong traditions can challenge progress. Though I haven’t been around quite as long as some of these schools, I have had a long affiliation with Minnesota’s higher education institutions (including earning a BS at the U of M in the 60s, serving on alumni and foundation boards, and serving as interim Dean of the Carlson school in the 2000s). For the past couple decade, I have been completely frustrated by the pace of change at our higher education systems. But I am happy to say that this past year I have felt an historic shift in attitude and actions among our higher education leadership.
Previously it seemed that to me that though the world evolved in significant ways, the schools were slow to respond. Technology enabled new ways of accessing higher education. Colleges and universities are serving a broader spectrum of the population, as job prospects for those with only a high school diploma have significantly diminished. The new economic normal is putting unimagined financial pressures on the systems and our students. Yet, in the past, Minnesota’s higher education institutions seemed to make only incremental efforts to respond to these forces. And instead of working together as public service providers, the higher education institutions cooperated very little, each sticking to their own domains believing they had little to benefit from working together. I often felt their actions even bordered on unproductive competition.
Since last fall, I have been working with The Itasca Project Higher Education Task Force (see report here), which included higher education leaders Eric Kaler, Steven Rosenstone, Brian Rosenberg, as well as business and community leaders. We have spent countless hours together around the same table discussing the future of higher education in Minnesota, how the systems might work together in new ways, and how business can be a more effective partner. Let me say that again: the leaders of the U of M, MnSCU, and a private college are working together and with business to identify ways to enhance Minnesota’s economic prosperity. We’ve initiated plans to work together to improve workforce alignment, build a stronger ecosystem of research and innovation, and to improve operational efficiencies through collaboration.
Of course we have a long ways to go to get to where we need to be for this 21st century economy. Yet, this activity has felt dramatically different than any higher education initiative I’ve been associated with. Our new leaders are not comfortable with business as usual, and I have felt their conviction to do things differently for Minnesota. In fact, I just learned that MnSCU and some of the private colleges are preparing for their first joint purchase together. This was a very small step, but I believe this is the start of a new wave of collaboration that will positively impact our region.
Though our higher education institutions may very well be around in another hundred years, they need to be very different organizations than they are today. I am pleased that Minnesota’s institutions have acknowledged that need to change and have started down the path.