Earlier this year I flew to Rochester, Minnesota, where I learned how fast heat will depart from the human body if you’re dumb enough to travel north of the 44th parallel in winter without proper insulation. (Answer: very.) I also visited the new branch campus of the University of Minnesota and wrote an article about it for the new issue of Washington Montly. You can read it here.
They’re doing a lot of interesting things at UMR. There are no academic departments and every undergraduate (the first class matriculated a year ago) is pursuing a B.S. in health sciences. Professors from the humanities and the sciences coordinate their curricula on a week-by-week basis, so a student might synthesize a compound like creatine in Chemistry, design an experiment examining its effect on muscle fatigue in Biology, debate the ethics of performance-enhancing drugs in Philosophy, learn how to interpret clinical trial data in Statistics, and combine all of those perspective in Writing.
Student assignments and work are all captured digitally and fed into a database that faculty will use to analyze teaching practices. This isn’t optional: tenure at UMR will be based on success in teaching, research in the field, and research about teaching. The facilities are brand-new and the classes of 20 to 25 students often include a tenure-track professor, a post-doc, and a student success coach. Students also have access to staff and facilities at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic, which is two blocks away.
It’s obviously a much better educational environment than most undergraduates receive. Yet once UMR ramps up enrollment to a few thousand students, it will be the cheapest public university in Minnesota on a per-student basis. The whole thing is run on a one-time $6 million increase to the University of Minnesota’s annual budget. The marginal cost of expansion all comes from tuition.
That’s because UMR doesn’t spend any money on stuff like student housing, sports teams, theaters, gymnasiums, libraries, and other expensive things that tend to accumulate at older universities over the years. In the article, I note that when when nearby Winona State University decided it needed a new library a few years ago, it spent $18 million on a brand-new building staffed by 17 people and filled with 220, 000 books. UMR hired one librarian and installed wi-fi in a room full of comfortable chairs. (This is just an example, read the whole piece.)
All of which makes me think that states should be doing much more of this kind of thing. Yet, for the most part, they’re not. We stopped building new public and private non-profit colleges in this country a long time ago. The private colleges and land grant institutions came over a hundred years ago. The big university systems and community colleges were in place by the mid-to-late 20th century. Since then, hardly anything. We should start founding new public-minded institutions again.
This rarely comes up in policy conversations. That’s because everyone seems to be in the grip of a “coverage” mentality of providing higher education services. By this way of thinking, we make sure that there’s a higher education institution within a certain geographic proximity of most people. And then we’re done. On the rare occasion that we build new institutions, we build them far away from existing universities, and we stamp them out of the existing institutional mold.
The result is institutions like the new University of California – Merced, which is located in the Central Valley, where the vast majority of Californians do not live. In April the U.C. Board of Regents approved a 10-year building plan for Merced. It will cost $1.1 billion, on top of hundreds of millions already spent, and over $100 million in annual operating costs. The dorms alone are slated at $131 million. Where California will find this money, given its banana republic budget, is unclear.
This is madness. If California decides to invest a few billion dollars on upgrading its higher education infrastructure–and to be clear, I think it absolutely should–why not spend it in Los Angeles, where people who want to go to college actually live. When new businesses enter a market, they don’t say “Let’s find a place where nobody is offering our services.” They say, “Let’s find a place where lots of people are offering our services, because that’s where the customers are.”
There’s no reason that the state of California couldn’t have 15 or 20 brand-new low-cost, high-quality UMR-style campuses up and running in major metropolitan areas within the next five years, each specializing in a particular academic area that fits with local communities. They don’t cost much to start up and the per-student public operating subsidy is going to go somewhere. The same is true nationwide. Instead of eternally trying and failing to fix chronically dysfunctional institutions, why not start new ones instead?
Because once organizations become what they are, they tend to stay that way. It’s not that they can’t change. But it’s very hard. When I was talked to the faculty and administrators in Rochester and asked them how they were able to build such an innovative, cost-effective institution so quickly, I encountered every metaphor for new beginning known to man: “fresh canvass,” “blank slate,” etc.
It’s outlandish to think that a long-established university is going to tear down its library, disband the money-losing football team, radically overhaul tenure, and require every single professor to convert every element of their courses to a common electronic platform and coordinate teaching, week-by-week, with multiple professors from other disciplines. It’s either impossible or so difficult that it might as well be impossible.
Most industries are constantly enlivened by new entrants that design their processes and cultures in ways that reflect the latest available technology and wisdom and serve the needs of today’s customers. As the amount of time since most colleges and universities were created continues to lengthen, higher education will increasingly suffer from the lack of such competition and renewal in the traditional public and private non-profit sector.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The only thing preventing us from building more high-quality public universities like UMR is our own failure of imagination.