Becoming What We Are—Part IV

Remarks to the Minnesota State University Graduate Faculty 8/22/00

Tony Filipovitch, Dean


Mitakuye Oyasin.  “My friends and relations….”


I don’t have much to say this year. 


Or, rather, I don’t have much to say that you haven’t already heard (you didn’t really think I’d leave it at two lines, did you?).  I just re-read my addresses from previous years: 

·        Each time, I exhorted us to become what we are. 

·        I wrote about the changes that global competition are bringing,

·        our responsibility to be of service to the community which supports us, and

·        the necessity of assessing what we do (last year I called it “building a culture of evidence”). 

·        I  have stressed the need to foster our distinctive competencies as a comprehensive university (“we must define our niche and hold it”) even while universities are losing their monopoly on post-baccalaureate education.


Since I came to this chair, annual applications have increased from 1250 to almost 1500—20% in 3 years.  But admissions have been essentially the same, and total on-campus graduate enrollment has declined from almost 1700 students to almost 1300 (a 24% drop).  Off-campus graduate enrollment has also declined, but at a slightly slower rate.  Meanwhile, St. Cloud State’s graduate enrollment has been slowly growing.


Enrollment levels are not the only measure of our response to changing times, but sometimes I feel like the Major General in Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance. When the constabulary are going off to hunt down the pirates, they blunder around the stage singing “We go!  We go!”  while the Major General sings “But you don’t go!” and “Still you don’t go!”  Eventually, of course, they do go (after Gilbert & Sullivan milk it for all its comedic worth), but not until Major General Stanley has churned up a lot of stomach acid.  I can’t decide if others don’t share my sense of urgency about the changing times we are facing, or if they share it only too well and are transfixed like deer in the headlights.


For those who think we can continue into the 21st Century doing things the way we always have (after all, universities are the oldest surviving corporate entities in the western world), let me repeat the reasons why I think that is wishful thinking. 


In the first place, the purpose of the university has never been a constant.  We no longer teach the trivium and quadrivium of the Medieval university, nor is theology the king and philosophy the queen of our sciences.  The Medieval university was “reinvented” in colonial times as a training ground for “gentlemen” (people whose status precluded doing “work,” and so they turned to arts and sciences to occupy their minds) and ministers.  Shortly after the Civil War, the university was again reinvented along the German research model on the one hand and as the Land Grant institutions (which were to apply the arts and sciences to farming and industry).  After World War II, the GI Bill transformed us again from institutions for the elite to a democratic gateway to a professional career.  The community college movement further democratized higher education.  We are now at the crux of another change.  The character of higher education used to be defined by the faculty (“We know more than you do, so you need to do what we tell you”); increasingly it is being defined by the students (“You need to give me what I want, or I will go elsewhere”).  Jorge Klor de Alva (President of the University of Phoenix) lists six basic needs of these new students:  Classes must not conflict with work obligations and must be relevant to the workplace; the education process must be time-efficient and cost effective; and students expect convenience and a high level of customer service (Klor de Alva, 2000).  The twenty-first century university will not be the alma mater in which many of us grew up.


Second, the nature of the “business” is changing.  For most of our history, business had little interest in education except to hire our graduates.  But also for most of that period business was concerned with manufacturing and moving “goods.”  With e-commerce, just-in-time manufacturing, distributed production, and increasing dependence on “smart” equipment and robotics, business has discovered the economic value of “information.”  Many private corporations think they can provide parts of what we have traditionally done better than we do it, and make a profit in the process.  The University of Phoenix is an example, but so is Motorola University and Rennselaer Learning Institute.  The prophecies of doom may be overstated—non-profit hospitals have not been swallowed by the corporate hospitals (yet), for example.  But the nature of the competition will change.  Private corporations can be much better capitalized than we are.  Because of that, they can pay $100,000 to develop a course (as the University of Phoenix does)—but they will only do it for courses that can return that investment many times over.  Online “learning” (we will leave for another time the question of whether it is training or education), with its global reach, provides a means to reach a much larger “customer” base to make that return on investment—and, by the way, to reach into our traditional student base.  For corporate universities, their “capital stock” is the course materials, which the corporation owns and hires faculty to deliver to the customers.  This is a different approach than our tradition, in which our capital resides in the faculty who develop courses for the students.


Third, the nature of our support is changing.  You might have heard the description of public education shifting from “state funded” to “state supported” to “state assisted.”  Some wags have suggested that some universities are now simply “state located” (and online education may even undo that!).  But the change in support goes deeper than that.  The Research Universities are finding the competition for grant funding is becoming more intense, and that they are competing for funds with institutions (public, proprietary, and not-for-profit) other than universities.  Business corporations are no longer content to donate their money in return for a name on a building or a college; they are moving to branding strategies on campus and partnering in patentable research.  And Legislatures around the country are playing a more active role assessing quality and efficiency in return for (decreasing) public funding.


So what am I trying to do?  Reduce even the pollyanas among us to “deer in the headlights”?


Clark Kerr (1991), former President of the University of California, predicted that a shake-out was coming in higher education and the survivors would be those selective institutions which focus on a clearly defined niche.  Research Universities and the selective Liberal Arts Colleges would survive, he predicted, but future times would be hard on Comprehensive Universities and on the less-selective colleges.  It might take a while longer for the ax to fall, but it would seem that après nous, la deluge. 


I disagree with Kerr, for two reasons.  The first is personal and emotional.  I have spent almost my entire working life in public, comprehensive education and I am not willing to see my life’s work washed away when I retire.  Nor, I suspect, are many of you.  Which leads to my second reason:  In my first speech to you as Graduate Dean, I urged us to “become what we are.”  Public comprehensive universities have retained their focus on student learning, but have also played in role in advanced, professional preparation.  Due to our philosophy of education and to the interests of our students, both our teaching and research have traditionally had a strong applied focus.  I believe we are creating something of real value here, something which I think is more robust for the future than what the thoroughbreds are doing at the selective institutions.


Darwin argued that evolution favors, not the strongest or most intelligent, but the most adapatable to change.  Loren Eisley expands on this point: 

“I think it was the great nineteenth-century paleontologist Cope who first clearly enunciated what he called the ‘law of the unspecialized,’ the contention that it was not from the most highly organized and dominant forms of a given geological era that the master type of a succeeding period evolved, but that instead the dominant forms tended to arise from more lowly and generalized animals which were capable of making new adaptations, and which were not narrowly restricted to given environment.” (Eisley, 1957, p. 55)

In evolution, there are many unspecialized species which die out rather than becoming a climax organism; just because we are less specialized than the selective institutions does not guarantee that we will survive.  It is, after all, hard to see the picture when you are inside the frame, and there is no doubt at all my mind that if we do not put ourselves into the twenty-first century picture, Minnesota State University will not survive as an institution.  But, if we have the courage to step out of our grooves, I think we are well positioned to take advantage of the turbulent times ahead. 


The loss of our “monopoly on education” (an overrated loss, in my mind) may be more troubling for the Research institutions than for the Comprehensives—after all, we have never really shared in that monopoly.  Research institutions have usually treated applied science as not quite as worthy; often describing it as “derivative,” or “secondary,” or “not original.”  Yet it is precisely our focus on application and partnerships that industry is asking for.  The recent MnSCU report, “Doctoral Education and the MnSCU Mission:  Access and Affordability” (I encourage you to read the full report; it is on the web at, points to a number of strengths that comprehensive universities afford for postbaccalaureate education and applied doctoral programs, including access for working professionals (both in the typical scheduling we offer and in ties to the local community), access for professionals interested in applied topics, and access for professionals who are seeking continuing opportunities for lifelong learning.  This sounds a lot like those “customer service” issues Klar de Alva was writing about. 


Nor do I think the new education technologies are as threatening as they are made out to be.  Make no mistake, we must master them and use them.  To the extent that the internet permits “virtual community,” it can extend our reach in teaching.  So did the telephone.  And most of us have already made the shift to communicating with our students through e-mail and even listserves.  But the other claims for “online learning”—that it will be “disintermediated” (students can dispense with teachers), asysnchronous (anytime), and self-paced—while true for online learning are not particularly threatening to what we do.  We already compete successfully with distance learning providers who use “old” technologies (videotapes, study guides, US Mail) to provide disintermediated, asynchronous, and self-paced learning.  Experience has shown that those methods work best for transmitting technical information.  When it does work for education, it requires a particularly motivated and self-disciplined student (or professor, for that matter—you know how much discipline it takes to “get that book written” by working at home).  Online learning will have a profound impact on the book and on libraries, but it will not replace an education.  The History Channel has not replaced the History Department.  As Howard Gardner (1999, p.126) puts it, “One can never attain a disciplined mind simply by mastering facts—one must immerse oneself deeply in the specifics of cases and develop one’s disciplinary muscles from such immersion.”  Education (as opposed to “knowledge acquisition”) will require a teacher—but a twenty-first century teacher.  According to Kent Morrison, president of Walden University, to be successful in an online environment a teacher must be a coach, a guidance provider, an observer, someone who offers limits and reminders, and someone who provides regular feedback.


Finally, “just-in-time” learning is also not new to us.  We are already used to partnering with the professions and with the employers of our alumni.  We are used to offering our courses to part-time students and at hours and locations that are accessible to working adults.  We have been experimenting with “mass customization” through our Multidisciplinary degree program, our extended campus offerings, our certificate programs (both formal and informal), and the CCL.  Of course, there is still room for improvement.  Some postbaccalaureate programs, particularly certificate programs, may need to be strongly interdisciplinary.  Kay Kohl wrote, “The job churning occurring in today’s economy means that traditional university programs in a single discipline often do not respond to the needs of postbaccalaureate learners.  Practitioners quickly discover …that they require knowledge and skills outside their primary disciplines.”  (Kohl, 2000, p. 24)


So, what to do?  Do not blunder around like the constables in The Pirates of Penzance.  Sometimes grasping at quick solutions prevents us from living with honest confusion (which can lead, in time, to new understanding).  There is no question that the University must increase its graduate enrollment; but that will come as the (welcome) by-product of focusing on our distinctive competencies and providing evidence of them to the communities we serve.


First, make sure your house is in order.  “Field of Dreams” programs (“If you build it, they will come”) will not long survive—if they are not squeezed out by online providers, they will fall to old-fashioned distance providers like St. Mary’s and St. Thomas.   If your graduate program has not already done so, I urge you again to identify and claim your niche: 

·        What do you do that distinguishes you from the other programs with similar names (why should students come to your program?). 

·        Then express this, not in terms of what you do, but in terms of what students can do when they complete your program (what are your performance expectations? what is the value added?). 

·        Finally, how can you demonstrate to the community that you are actually doing what you claim you can (how credible are your claims?).  

I will be asking the Graduate Sub-Meet and Confer to expect this sort of information from every graduate program in the College.


Second, make a concerted effort to attract, keep, and graduate every student who comes to your program.  Open-enrollment and limited-enrollment programs will, of course, address this differently.  There are two parts to this challenge:  One is to attract qualified students, and the other is to see to it that they achieve their goals once they arrive here. 

·        Recruitment is a joint responsibility.  The Graduate College represents all of our programs at recruiting fairs around the region, handles many inquiries from prospective students and refers them to your programs, processes the initial application material, and provides various marketing tools (website, catalogue, brochures, etc.).  But, unlike undergraduate students, most graduate students come not for the institution but for the program.  The College can entice them to take a look, but the program has to hook them.  Do you have a protocol for handling telephone inquiries in the program office?  Do you follow up on every inquiry, and have a planned series of contacts (mail, but also telephone; faculty contacts, but also student contacts) to encourage prospects to apply?  And, once students are admitted, do you have a plan for encouraging them to take the next step and enroll?

·        Retention and graduation is usually focused at the program level—after all, you know your students better than anyone else.  Do you have a comprehensive graduate student advising manual for your students?  Do you provide strong mentoring for each student and monitoring through to graduation?  What opportunities do you provide for financial support for your students (paid internships, grant-funded research assistantships, teaching assistantships, etc.)?  What training do you provide to ensure the successful performance of your GA/TA students?   And how do you work with your alumni to maintain their interest in and loyalty to your program? 

This Fall, the College of Graduate Studies will be using a special allocation from MnSCU to conduct a market survey to provide all of us with more specific information about our prospective and admitted students.  As in years past, we are looking for graduate faculty members who would be interested in attending a recruiting fair on our behalf (and, while they are at it, visiting the programs from which their department hopes to recruit).  We will also replace the graduate catalogue with a recruitment brochure which is more marketing oriented.  And, finally, the College is placing the exit interview on the Web so we achieve a more representative sample and can more easily provide each program with annual summaries.


Finally, I want to invite all of us to a conversation—a Socratic “symposium”—about the nature of graduate teaching, scholarly activity, and service at a comprehensive university in the 21st Century.  We will do this many ways, of course.  But I particularly want to invite you to read the current issue of Higher Education Exchange (a publication of the Kettering Foundation).  This issue has articles on the civic roots of academic social science, the public work of today’s young scholars, the postmodern challenge to higher education, and civic engagement.  The foundation president, David Mathews (2000), extends an invitation for further contributions to this dialogue.  In other words, the current issue of HEE offers both food for thought and a venue for sharing our own recipes.  There will be copies at the Graduate College meeting on August 22 at 1:00 in CSU Ballroom North, and limited copies available from the Graduate Office after that.  I have reserved CSU 103 for Friday, September 8, at 1:30 for an open meeting to consider how we might respond to Dr. Mathews’ invitation.




Eisley, Loren.  1957.  The Immense Journey.  NY:  Random House.


Gardner, Howard.  1999.  The Disciplined Mind.  NY:  Simon & Schuster.


Klor de Alva, Jorge.  1999.  “Remaking the Academy,” Educause Review, 35(2), 32-40.


Kerr, Clark.  1991.  The Great Transformation in Higher Education, 1960-1980.  Albany, NY:  SUNY Press.


Kohl, Kay.  2000.  “The Postbaccalaureate Learning Imperative,” in Kohl & Lapidus, eds., Postbaccalaureate Futures:  New Markets, Resources, Coalitions.  Phoenix, AZ:  Oryx Press.


Mathews, David.  2000.  “An Invitation,” Higher Education Exchange.  Dayton, OH:  Kettering Foundation.


MnSCU.  1999.  Doctoral Education and the MnSCU Mission:  Access and Affordability”