Two months ago, University of Minnesota Regent Steve Sviggum asked an impolite question that gave the political class a chance to do what it does best: Signal its virtue (as opposed to solving society’s problems).
Sviggum asked whether the University’s campus at Morris was “too diverse.” The virtue signalers were overwhelmed by the temptation to purify one’s own ego in saying to someone else, “You’re racist, and I’m not.”
The timing also helped the virtue signalers score political points in the upcoming election since Sviggum is a former GOP legislator. “Racist Republicans” has become a mantra for some Progressives who have become more shrill since Republicans have gained support among working-class minorities.
The unfortunate fallout from the incident was allowing the virtue signalers to move off the topic at hand, which is the declining enrollment not only at Morris, but at the University’s Duluth and Crookston campuses as well. The Morris shrinkage is the most severe, having dropped from 1,946 in 2013 to 1,068 now.
Morris has also been operating for more than a year with an interim chancellor, but the University did not even begin looking for a new chancellor until September.
If the University is interested only in non-transformative change, which is indicated by the materials presented at the October Regents meeting, it ought to follow the example set 45 years ago by Jon Wefald. Wefald, who died in April, had been commissioner of Minnesota’s Department of Agriculture when he was hired to become the president of Southwest Minnesota State University (SWSU) in Marshall. SWSU was going through an existential crisis much like Morris is experiencing today. In his first year at Marshall, Wefald personally visited 94 high schools within a 50-mile radius of Marshall, telling 50,000 high school students what SWSU had to offer. The next fall, Southwest’s enrollment surged 30%.
Marketing, led from the top, can work. Today, Southwest has approximately 8,700 students, more than the University of Minnesota’s Morris, Crookston and Rochester campuses combined.
The University of Minnesota sees itself as or wants to be (depending on one’s viewpoint) an elite public institution of higher education. The problem is that it has been so metro-centric for decades that its satellite campuses are little more than headaches to the central administration. The University is governed by a 12-member Board of Regents, of which only two live in what could be termed rural areas: Sviggum from Kenyon and Douglas Huebsch from Perham. Three others live in regional urban centers: Duluth, Mankato and Rochester. The remainder live in the Twin Cities metro area.
If the University is interested in transformative change for those campuses, then it needs to re-examine their missions. Morris is essentially a liberal arts college, many of which are under financial pressure. In part, that is because more students and their parents are re-assessing the value of a liberal arts education. Perhaps Morris should expand its offerings in the sciences and market itself as a technology hub.
Thirty years ago, the University closed its agricultural campus, then worth an estimated $20 million, at Waseca, giving it to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons for free. The primary reason was because the University did not want to be in the junior college business. Back then, both the Waseca and Crookston campuses were two-year schools. The difference was political opportunity. The state was governed entirely by the DFL. The Waseca area was represented by Republicans in the legislative minority while Crookston was represented in St. Paul by DFL Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe. Crookston became four-year shortly afterward and today offers a full-range of agricultural courses.
If the University wanted to make a truly bold change, it would move its ag campus in St. Paul out where agriculture actually happens. Morris is 165 miles south of Crookston, and could appeal to more students from southern Minnesota.
Of course, the first reaction would be that the St. Paul faculty would go ballistic. Telling the professors that they had to move 150 miles away from their comfortable, urban lifestyles, just a stone’s throw from the State Fair, professional and Big 10 sports, cultural amenities, touring entertainers, etc., would not go over well.
The other side of the argument is that having an agricultural campus in the middle of an urban area of more than 2 million people makes about as much sense as taking a parka on your Caribbean vacation.
Further, the St. Paul campus’ acreage and buildings could be worth billions to developers. The revenue from the sale could be used to build out the relocated campus. Additionally, the Twin Cities is said to have a severe housing shortage, and repurposing the St. Paul campus could go a long way toward solving that challenge.
The political dynamics are similar today for Morris as they were for Waseca. The one big difference is that recently re-elected Gov. Tim Walz ran on a campaign slogan of “One Minnesota.” If the governor is sincere about that, he won’t let the University’s outstate campuses wither on the vine. He will horse trade to give the University other things that it wants in return for growing the Greater Minnesota campuses. If he was just blowing smoke, he will resort to his fallback “Don’t blame me” leadership style and say he has no control of the Regents. Watch closely.
Tom West, now retired, is the former general manager of this paper. Reach him at email@example.com.