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March 29, 2005

Where is the equity in the strategic plan?

I'm writing this entry on the eve of the full unveiling of the strategic plan. It seems like this process has been one of slow unveiling. Last week, we got a little taste when the U revealed the Strategic Planning Report, which was a conceptual piece that announced the U's new goal: becoming one of the top three public research universities in the world within a decade.

Well, as someone said to me recently, who can argue with that? No one is going to say, "let's try for mediocre." Competition for institutional dollars is increasingly tough, and research grants bring money and graduate students in. But, the U of M is also a land grant university, and this means a committment to educating MN citizens.

I came to the University of Minnesota because it was a well-respected, high-rated university. The program I came here for--Comparative and International Development Education--is not offered everywhere, and Minnesota's program is highly respected. Because my program is housed in Education Policy and Administration, I have learned a few things about organizational analysis and education policy. I've also become passionate about knowledge and innovation (who knew?) as I focus on issues around language education.

So, when I hear that the University of Minnesota has too much administrative bureaucracy, I am not surprised. In fact, I have often been surprised at how decentralized and specialized the university is. There's linguistics in CLA, the TESL master's program in CLA, and Second Languages and Cultures in C & I, for example. While I recognize the unique function of each of these programs (and I've chosen these as only one example out of many), I've wondered how they might benefit from a closer administrative relationship. After all, the future of the university, I believe, is moving toward a lessening of departmental boundaries (and greater interdisciplinarity, or transdisciplinarity, depending on how you define it).

So it is with General College--one college that not only has a strong focus on multiple disciplines, but also on educational access and equity. The Citizens League report recently recommended at least two years of higher education for every citizen of Minnesota, and I agree. In order for Minnesota to be a knowledge and innovation-oriented state, we need to have well-educated citizens who are creative, inspiring, and able to at least keep up with, if not ahead of, the ever quickening pace of change these days. This means all Minnesotans, not just those who, by virtue of some privilege, are fully qualified and prepared for the University of Minnesota, or any other school of their choice. For many Minnesotans, General College is a great place to start.

I recently had the chance to hear Nellie Stromquist speak. Her lifelong work has been to improve educational access and equity for girls around the world. in her talk, she contended that it is not enough to provide educational access. Rather, true equity means doing more than making sure students can get to school. A case in point is medical school admissions and graduation. Although medical schools have increased the number of minority admissions, research still shows that few minorities graduate with medical degrees because the educational experience beyond admission itself is not equitable.

Research shows that minority students who begin their studies at community colleges are less likely to graduate from four-year institutions than minority students who began their education at a four-year institution. This is important to consider as the university announces its restructuring. The General College is an important access point for students who may be otherwise underqualified for university admissions. I argue that GC is more than access--it is also educational equity. Faculty in GC recognize and appreciate the unique needs, experiences and perspectives students bring to college. At the same time, GC faculty acknowledge that transition to the university is something of an acculturation process, and they work toward that end so that when students transfer, they will have what they need to succeed in other university courses.

I don't see these things in the strategic planning reports. While I see something about access and increased scholarships for students who may be less prepared, I don't see a strong commitment to a high-quality education for all students, even those who are underqualified for, but desiring of, university work. While I recognize that there are limited resources and that one university cannot education everyone, I also think we lose too much when we think that human educational potential can only be measured by ACT scores and high school class rank. A truly strategic plan would be one that creatively and innovatively proposed to improve the educational experiences of students who are less qualified--more Upward Bound programs, more high school bridge and PSEO. A truly strategic plan would acknowledge that there is excellence in equity.

Posted by chri1010 at March 29, 2005 4:50 PM

Comments

Thank you for writing this excellent piece on the lack of vision around access in the Strategic Positioning discussion. The attack on General College is really wrong, and shows that something more fundamental must be wrong with the whole approach being pursued by Bruininks in this Strategic Positioning process.

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Posted by: Bren at March 31, 2005 9:08 PM

I'm also uneasy about GC's proposed fate. It's an important symbol of a prestigious university's commitment to equity and access. But is it more than a symbol? How many GC students eventually graduate from the U? How do those numbers compare to graduation rates for underprepared students who choose a MnSCU school? Do admission requirements differ greatly between GC and MnSCU? These are things I'd really like to know before I make up my mind about GC.

What I'm wondering is whether other four-year institutions in Minnesota do a better job of educating these students. If that's the case, then I would have to reluctantly agree that GC is a luxury rather than a necessity. The university clearly can't afford to be all things to all people. If underprepared students do better elsewhere, then I think it's hard to justify keeping GC open. If they do better at the U than elsewhere, that's a different story, and GC should stay.

(It's possible this information is in the report, which I admit I haven't yet had time to read.)

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