Becoming What We Are--Part II

Address to the Graduate Faculty, 8/18/98

Tony Filipovitch


Mitakuye Oyasin! "Oh, my friends and relations!" This is a traditional Lakota formula by which a speaker asks the hearers to give careful consideration to what is said.

When I spoke to the Graduate Faculty last year, I urged us to ponder Nietzsche's admonition to "become what you are." I said then, and I repeat again, that Mankato State University is the largest public graduate school in the State of Minnesota, aside from the University of Minnesota. Graduate studies is one of the distinctive competencies of our university. We have been involved in graduate education for almost 45 years, and many of our 71 graduate programs have been here for 30 years and more. I also stressed that it is graduate education which helps create our distinctive campus environment, different from 4-year colleges and from research universities. At Mankato State, our teaching is tied to the application and generation of new knowledge; our research is an extension of our teaching. I also stressed that graduate programs at MSU are a common good, that a comprehensive university has its own role and character distinct from that of a research university, and that global competition requires a clear vision of our distinctive competencies. We must become what we are.

We have accomplished much together this last year--a new policy on graduate faculty qualifications and equivalency, a policy for allocating indirect costs recovered from grants and contracts, a review and updating of guidelines for thesis and alternate plan papers, completion of semester conversion preparations, a modest increase in GA stipends, initiation of a study of job descriptions for GA, initiating a process for timely allocation of GA awards--but "the more things change, the more they stay the same." A new year has rolled around, and last year's theme still seems to me the crucial one. We must become what we are.


What Is a Comprehensive University?

During table conversation at a professional conference last year, a colleague commented, "Oh, you must want Ph.D. programs," when he learned that I came from a Master's-granting university. I was a new Dean, with almost twenty prior years of teaching at MSU. I found his comment curious, even vaguely insulting. The implications was that Ph.D. programs are better than Master's, and no one would want to be a master's institution. (Would the same comment have been made were I from a 4-year liberal arts institution?)

We will award doctoral degrees someday, but not because we want to be the U of M nor because doctoral degrees are somehow "better." We will offer doctoral degrees because that is what we need to do to "promote learning" at MSU, and the doctoral degrees we award will come from our mission as a comprehensive (not a Research I) university.

What is a "comprehensive" (or, in the new language of the Carnegie Commission, a "master's-granting") university? Traditionally, it has been a residual category, the awkward middle between "4-year liberal arts" and "Research" (with a capital "R") university. Clark Kerr was one of the few writers on education who recognized it as something unique, comparing it to the European "polytechnic" universities, but he never really developed what that meant in practice. Most writers (including Kerr) predict that, as higher education goes into the 21st Century, the elite liberal arts and the great Research Universities will survive but the comprehensives will be hard put to defend any ground as their own.

We used to declare in our mission statement used that we were a "regional comprehensive" university. But what is "regional" in the global, digital age? There may be some continuing need for serving place-bound students in southcentral Minnesota. Such students are usually either employed or connected to someone else who is (hence the inability to relocate for education), which means we would be serving primarily part-time students who have little need for a full-service campus like ours. Another sense of "regional" may be found in service to the local economy. The campus' recent success in obtaining an industry leadership grant in health care exemplify this. But for the most part, and for most of our graduate programs, we compete for students all over the nation and the globe, and they compete for employment away from our region as well.

So, when we raise our sights beyond our region, what competition do we see? The University of Phoenix, a proprietary business of higher education, is making its fortune serving, in the words of its president, "students (who) don't really want the education. They want what the education provides for them--better jobs, moving up in their career…." Nor is he unique in equating higher education with "occupational preparation," as a recent issue of Leadership Abstracts newsletter attests. At Phoenix, courses are tailored to meet minimal job certification requirements; anything more is inefficient and slows the student's progress toward certification (graduation).

Others set their sights a little higher. A recent book, Strategic Choices for the Academy (1998), talks about education as "knowledge transfer" and even "information transfer." Universities, the authors claim, no longer have a monopoly over information and expertise; the information revolution is dissolving their traditional control over information transfer. The "campus" of the future will be a "webnest" of "the internet with a computer in a semiprivate setting." Such a vision is not limited to higher education, by the way. In a recent speech, Alan November urged school districts to stop investing in buildings and start investing in homes--with the internet, much of what is done in the classroom can be shifted to the home. Just last month, Stanford University announced that it is offering a complete Master's of Engineering online. And even without the Web and the internet, management gurus of re-engineering and rightsizing are arguing that the higher education institutions which survive into the next century will be agile organizations which shift resources quickly to meet shifting market demands.


Who Are We (as a comprehensive university)?

So much for what "they" say is coming. But is that "us"? Dayton-Hudson's business is fashion; it is important for them to catch each wave as it is building. But we must become what we are, not follow each fad as it passes.

I am not saying we can pretend that this pivotal culture shift will ever "go away." I meditate often on the great Medieval scholars, raised in the oral tradition and trained to prodigious feats of memorization and recitation, who must have been confused and frightened by the printing press. Perhaps the "commodification" of education will run its course, but not in our lifetimes. Public comprehensive universities depend on continued popular support for their survival. "The market" will not be ignored.

But perhaps we can ride with it, if we know what else we have to offer. Michael Hartoonian, professor of education at the University of Minnesota, talks about education's "responsibility to the cultural heritage." This is, of course, the traditional domain of the liberal arts colleges. But the growing pool of Baby Boomers who have made their mark in business and are looking for other interests to carry them through retirement may create an unanticipated new market for us. Nor has the market, traditionally, been very good at doing the "basic thinking" that lies behind its activity. That has been the domain of the Research Universities (and some nonprofit organizations). There may be a role for us in developing doctoral programs which carry the tradition of research and basic inquiry to applied and professional areas of endeavor. Certainly, our history with post-Master's work in education demonstrates our ability to move in that direction.

Whatever we do, we must define our own niche, and hold it. In our history as a comprehensive university, there is some tradition of trying to be all things to all people--how else did we come up with 71 graduate degree programs? And, if the institution is seen as providing service to a place-bound population, such an approach makes sense. Another approach is that of the polytechnic. In this tradition, we would focus on applied and professional education, training students in the knowledge, skills, and values needed to enter the professions as a journeyman and as a master. The aim here is to offer the full range of professional careers. There is at least a third apporach, one of "Centers of Excellence." The attempt is not to provide training in all the professions, but to develop extraordinary depth in a limited range of professions--Pratt Institute in design, Carnegie-Mellon in engineering, for example. Communities also pursue this strategy, as Rochester, MN, has in health care and computers.

What guides us in finding our niche? The market alone is insufficient, as a recent Perspectives page of the StarTribune (7/2/98) pointed out. According to Robert Kuttner, the market model fails to capture what we do because not all market preferences are acceptable. Even if one were willing, indentured servitude (for example) is barred by law. In the market model, students are considered as "consumers." But students are not passive vessels, raw material to be reworked, but, as Michael Hartoonian argues, are producers both of themselves and of their own educations. So even if students want the least for their money, our values as educators do not permit it. Finally, as Stephen Carter argues, the consequence of overemphasizing the market is a loss of civility, and even the loss of democracy. If education fails to inculcate other values, it leaves a vacuum for the selfish values of the market.

And yet, we must innovate. These are hard words in "the Academy" (a term we use to describe ourselves which hearkens back to Aristotle's "university" 2300 years ago). But at this crux in time, it is our calling to figure out how to carry the values we cherish into the new world which is being created. For most of us, the cyberworld of the 21st Century will not be of our making; it belongs to the generation we are helping to raise up. If our values are to survive, it will be only as they have adopted them. The new student will need imagination and creativity more than knowledge. Skills and values move to the fore when information is ubiquitous. As Scott Shrewsbury said in his commencement address this summer, the university is a place of more than knowledge--here one needs creativity, adaptability, and balance.


How Will We Recognize It?

However we decide, our motto must not be Lake Woebegone's nil nimium male ("not too bad"), but must be nil nisi bene ("nothing but the best").

The difference between "not bad" and "the best" depends, at least in part, on where we are trying to go. How will we decide whether we are becoming nothing but the best we can be? The Faculty Graduate Committee will be a key part of this discussion. Talk to your college representative to the committee. Last year, we scheduled a general meeting of the graduate faculty; the opening meeting this year will be another general meeting for discussion. Always remember that the price of dissent is a good alternative. As we contend together to forge a common vision of graduate studies, bring forward your vision of what we could be and let us concentrate on our common weal rather than our differences. And as we build the vision, we must chart our course. We will need landmarks so we can make mid-course corrections as needed. Program assessment is a tool for us to realize our common vision of what we are. All of us have a stake in the excellence of each, and in a rapidly changing environment the excellence of any draws on the strengths of all.

We will decide because we must decide, we have no choice. If we do not take part in the decision, it will be made perforce. Simone deBeauvoir once wrote, "They were dragged, kicking and screaming into the future--lest a worse fate befall them." We are privileged to serve this great university at a critical juncture in its history. Let us resolve together, as did the Athenians, to "transmit this place not only not less, but greater, better, and more beautiful than it was given to us."