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The Long View on the University of Minnesota

February 25, 2009 By Steve Cross, guest commentary

Editor's note: While the following is a work of fiction, it could become reality if we continue to neglect our colleges & universities. The piece is a guest commentary from November 24, 2039. In it, the author recounts the effect of more than 30 years of insufficient maintenance of the University of Minnesota by the state of Minnesota.

My 95 years gives me the ability, and perhaps the obligation, to take the long view on the events of my lifetime.  More than 30 years ago the I-35 Bridge over the Mississippi collapsed into the Mississippi River.  Now, the Washington Avenue Bridge collapsed into the Mississippi.  The I-35W Bridge "only" cost 13 lives.  Now, the collapse of the Washington Avenue Bridge took with it 93 students from the University of Minnesota who were in transit between the East and West Banks for classes.  The cause of this collapse is yet to be determined officially.  However, everyone suspects that the lack of maintenance played at least some role in the bridge's failure.

But, I'm not going to use my 95 years of observation just to comment on bridge maintenance.  Rather, I want point out that the bridge's failure is a metaphor for 30-some years of lack of maintenance of the University of Minnesota in which it was a central artery.

I am not unacquainted with the U.  Thirty years ago, and over the period of many years, I took advanced courses at the U.  I took the courses not because I had to.  I took them because I love learning.  The fact that the laws of Minnesota allowed me to take any course for free once I got to age 62 allowed me the opportunity to keep learning for free.

What I got way back then at the U was exciting.  The professors I took classes from were uniformly gifted and dedicated to passing on their knowledge to everyone they could.  I remember leaving classes and encountering what I called the "golden hour" after each one.  That golden hour was continued thinking about what I had just heard in class, taking the ideas forward, and pondering issues that the professors regularly left the entire class with to figure out on my own.  I was welcomed in their classes even though my enthusiasm for more education was probably superior to my actual academic abilities.  And I also learned from them the latest and greatest ideas in their fields.

Now, after 30 some years of neglect of the University, while the laws of Minnesota still permit me to attend the U for free, I haven't taken courses for quite a while. 


It's simply that, like the Washington Avenue Bridge that just collapsed because of lack of maintenance, we have failed at the ordinary maintenance of the University.  No longer am I assured of the great things that I encountered 30-some years ago.  In fact, I wonder whether the whole U is in danger of collapsing just like the bridge.  I shall not mince words but enumerate but one chain of disaster that the University continues to have to deal with.

The salaries for professors have essentially been stagnant for a long time.  The result is that the best professors have moved on to universities that can pay what they are worth.  No longer can students be assured that no matter what class they choose, a gifted instructor will be in charge.

Stagnant salaries also mean that the U can only hope to replace a departing professor with anyone with a Ph.D.

Stagnant salaries also mean that classes listed in the University's catalog have disappeared.  We've lost not just the professors but the classes that they taught.  (At one time, I looked over the U's schedule of classes with the same excitement that I greeted the Guthrie Theater's announcement of its plays for the following season.  That doesn't happen anymore.)

And following on from this growing chain of failure is that there are fewer sections of major classes.  The student-faculty ratio has increased.  The demand on huge classrooms cannot be met without scheduling classes earlier and later in the day.  (And that while smaller classrooms are unused.)

Of course, this ultimately means that the students take their learning to institutions where they can still get the kind of education they want.

University administrators know what is happening because of stagnant salaries and they try to find other ways to keep money in the "salary" line of their budget.  They can only do so in the traditional ways of deferring maintenance, reducing library acquisitions of books and periodicals, and increasing student tuition and fees.

And, what's already happened further reduces the universities income further hurting the retention of quality professors and the circle starts over.

Another effect of the lack of funds to support the University of Minnesota is that the cost of getting a degree from the U long ago exceeded any degree of reasonability.  The youth of Minnesota have figured that out.  The enrollment in undergraduate programs has been reduced by one-third.  The kids of Minnesota who formerly went to the U now survive as best they can with high school degrees or technical education for specific jobs.  Enrollment in graduate and professional schools is off by half.  The reduction of enrollment at the U is undoubtedly the reason for why the general education level of Minnesota's population has fallen steadily for the last twenty years.  I assume that there is no need to prove that the general reduction of the number of Minnesotans with advanced educations is an unmitigated disaster.

What's happening has been the result of great change in Minnesotans toward the University.  Our grandparents and great-grandparents sacrificed to build the University of Minnesota.  They built it into the state's crown jewel.  Unfortunately, the spirit of sacrifice even for a crown jewel is gone.  Since the change to the new millennium, Minnesota has had a string of political leaders who have sold us on "no new taxes" as the only acceptable political policy.  Minnesota was no longer a community of like-minded people who see a great education as the way to better each and all of us.  The spirit that our leaders have sold us on is, "I'm all right, Jack.  If I want an ed-u-cation, I'll buy some."

So, ask not why the Washington Avenue Bridge collapsed into the Mississippi but ask why the entire hilltop crowned by the University hasn't followed the bridge and fallen into the Mississippi.

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