Small, New University Does Something Radical -- Only Hires Professors Who Want To Teach And Only Admits Students Who Want To Learn
University of Minnesota Square in Rochester, MN
Is a college degree worth what it costs? More and more Americans are questioning the conventional wisdom that it is, as the price tag climbs while the educational value (at least for many students) falls.
That isn’t either a “right” or a “left” critique. Honest observers from all over the political landscape realize that to a great extent, colleges and universities are run more for the benefit of their faculty, than for the benefit of their students.
Two well-known liberal writers, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus made that point in their 2011 book Higher Education? “The schools almost function for (the professors), for their aspirations and interests. Students come and go every four years, administrators will move on, but the tenured stay on in Bloomington, College Park, and Chapel Hill, accumulating power, controlling resources, reshaping the university according to their needs,” they write.
The libertarian Peter Thiel, a Stanford graduate, thinks that the pursuit of the college degree is a waste of time for bright and energetic young people. He has established Thiel Fellowships for people like that, enabling them to bypass college and start their productive careers years sooner.
But just because much of our higher education system is now a poor value for students who really want to study, we shouldn’t think that worthwhile schools have disappeared. In fact, just a few years ago, a new, very small university was created — the University of Minnesota Rochester (UMR) – that does just what a college is supposed to do.
While online education is getting most of the attention these days when the subject of change in higher education comes up, UMR shows that the old-fashioned professor-facing-students-in-a-classroom model can be reworked so that it gives serious students a true education at reasonable cost.
First, a short history of UMR.
Rochester, Minnesota is best known as the home of the famed Mayo Clinic. IBM also has a large presence in the city. Going back to the 1960s, Mayo, IBM, and other leaders pressed the state for a higher education institution and their efforts resulted in a community college and a branch of Winona State University in the city. Predictably, those off-the-shelf educational models didn’t do much for Rochester.
Business and civic leaders kept angling for a full University of Minnesota campus and in 2006 that wish was granted when the state designated University of Minnesota—Rochester as a “full and official coordinate campus.”
At that point, however, there was no campus. Nor was there any plan for what to do with this new entity. Minnesota might have set up UMR like almost every other state university campus, with lots of departments, degrees, dormitories, sports teams, and so forth. Had that happened, the country would have had one more cookie-cutter university, churning out graduates who have had a good time but learned little during their college years—and doing so at high cost.
Fortunately, that did not happen. For one thing, Minnesota didn’t have the money for a “real” university. More importantly, the man chosen to be the chancellor of the new institution, Stephen Lehmkuhle, insisted on thinking outside the standard higher education box. Lehmkuhle is a psychologist who is interested in how people learn. He had been the top academic administrator at the University of Missouri and saw UMR as a clean slate for developing a college that would maximize student learning.
Furthermore, the small budget had had to work with made him think like an entrepreneur: How can I get the most benefit from my very limited resources?
Lehmkuhle decided that UMR should focus on just one thing, namely training people for careers in medicine and related fields, a perfect fit for the Mayo Clinic’s headquarters. UMR only offers a B.S. in Health Sciences. The curriculum includes a liberal arts component in the first two years, alongside rigorous grounding in the STEM disciplines. In their last two years, students are immersed in studies that prepare them for their careers, including a capstone senior project.
One of the unique features of UMR is the absence of academic departments. Colleges and universities are almost always an assemblage of numerous departments, each requiring considerable overhead expenses, and often squabbling among themselves for money and prestige. Lehmkuhle saw that UMR could not afford that, so the faculty is all one team rather than a group of jealous departments.
Another remarkable feature of UMR is its approach to tenure.
At nearly every college and university that has tenure (about 98 percent according to this somewhat dated report), the decision to award it rests overwhelmingly on how much research the faculty member publishes. That causes professors seeking tenure to concentrate so much on getting published that teaching students becomes a distraction from the work that really matters. Moreover, their published research often has nothing to do with knowledge that is useful in the teaching of undergraduates.
UMR’s approach to tenure is altogether different. Its tenure criteria reflect Chancellor Lehmkuhle’s focus on student learning. Candidates for tenure must first of all demonstrate excellence in teaching.
To show that, professors can present an array of evidence including their efforts at developing community-based learning activities for students, how they have interacted with student projects, course evaluations and letters from students, and their advising, mentoring and supervising of capstone experiences. (Professors usually teach 12 hours, and are also expected to devote around 20 hours per week to student contact.)
UMR also requires faculty research, and the research obligation has two aspects.
A professor’s primary research needs to “advance the field of inquiry of student learning.” That is to say, professors must study and write about how to improve educational results. What an idea—telling professors that if they want to keep their jobs, they’ll have to focus on the effectiveness of their teaching!
The second area of research is the standard work in one’s academic field—the sort of research that is usually all that counts toward tenure.
In addition, once tenured, professors can’t simply coast because there are post-tenure reviews. If any faculty member might be inclined toward what Professor Murray Sperber, author of Beer and Circus, calls the “faculty/student non-aggression pact,” he’ll quickly abandon such thoughts. That approach can succeed elsewhere, but certainly won’t in UMR’s learning community.
“Learning community” has become an educational buzzword, but it is evident that one has actually formed at UMR. Reading articles on the school, such as this Minnesota Public Radio piece, we find that students revel in the “intense academic environment” and enjoy the chance to work closely with professors. None of those massive lecture classes where the professor or a TA drones an accompaniment to power point slides, or office hours that are a joke.
As for the faculty’s involvement, one student said, with regard to UMR’s Just Ask Centers, “For five minutes or an hour (professors) sit there and work with you. I was actually studying for pretty much my entire organic chemistry final at the center last year. I got to sit with the professor and a few other people and worked through the problems.”
Naturally, UMR isn’t for everyone. The attrition rate for the first class (only 57 students) was nearly 25 percent. Too much work (most students report that they devote at least 35 hours per week to their studies, outside of class) and too little fun for quite a few.
At that point, most college administrators would have started thinking, “How can we change the school to retain more students?” Instead, Chancellor Lehmkuhle decided to improve the school’s marketing to the kind of student who’d be a good fit for the serious intellectual environment. That’s apparently working and UMR has grown to 475 students.
Tuition is the same for all students—no discount for Minnesotans—and a year costs about $13,000. The school receives about $5,000 per student from the state, which is only a third of the subsidy it gives the flagship campus in the Twin Cities.
And one more tidbit about UMR: its “campus” is in a shopping mall.
Most of our colleges and universities grew fat and happy during the lush years following the 1965 passage of the Higher Education Act. But the halcyon days are past. The future is perilous for many schools because Americans are figuring out that the college experience they offer costs far too much and often delivers little value.
UMR seems built for survival in the fast-arriving future where educational programs and institutions sink or swim based on their ability to teach students who want an education and not just a degree.