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August 22, 2010 11:00 PM The Mayo Clinic of Higher Ed

By Kevin Carey

I saw Muthyala’s approach to teaching in action when I attended one of his classes. For more than an hour, he stayed in motion, moving in a 270-degree arc around the room, alternating between short explanations of the material and friendly interrogation. Questions and diagrams popped up on wall-mounted projection screens as students used their laptops to examine data on spreadsheets and flip back and forth between charts on PowerPoint slides. Some pulled portable whiteboards down from racks and began scrawling out equations with green markers as other members of their team pointed and offered suggestions. “Can we rule out an ester unambiguously?” Muthyala asked at one point. “No, we cannot. Make sure you read up on proton NMR spectroscopy before you come to the next class.” This went over my head, but the students seemed to understand completely. And I did understand the term “creatine” when it was mentioned. After all, it had come up in another class already.

The UMR experience is highly structured at the beginning, a marked contrast to universities that hand freshmen a huge course catalog and expect them to fend for themselves. UMR faculty from different disciplines carefully map out the sequences of their courses together, coordinating topic areas week by week. But the curriculum will be much less structured at the end. The plan is for these undergraduates to have a senior year devoted entirely to a personalized “capstone experience” like getting an allied health certificate at Mayo, taking graduate classes, or working with professors on new research.

The groundbreaking UMR model could not have been created at an established college or university. Stephen Lehmkuhle was only able to make all the right connections, hire all the right people, and build the right organizational culture by starting a new university from scratch.

Traditional research universities defend their departments, vice chairs, and classically tenured professors on the grounds that autonomy is vital for research. The point is arguable, but also largely irrelevant. According to the Carnegie Foundation, there are only 167 public research universities in America, out of nearly 1,700 public colleges and universities nationwide. Only sixty-three qualify as top-tier research institutions. The vast majority of students enroll somewhere else.

State lawmakers don’t think much about creating new universities, because they can barely afford the existing ones. But new universities are only expensive if you build them using the old model. When the Minnesota legislature signed off on the new Rochester campus, it increased the University of Minnesota’s annual budget by $6.3 million. Otherwise, it has provided no additional funding for UMR, and it doesn’t intend to. The cost of UMR’s planned expansion to 1,500 students by 2015 will come entirely from student tuition, which is currently the standard University of Minnesota rate of $11,976 per year.

Five years from now UMR is scheduled to receive a little over $5,000 per student from the taxpayer, which is roughly one-third of what the flagship Twin Cities campus receives today. Even after discounting spending on research, the flagship is still two to three times costlier than UMR. And, if UMR eventually grows to a modest size of 3,000 to 5,000 students, it will be the most cost-effective public university in the state, by far. That’s because existing universities have to pay for things and ideas from an earlier time.

Take Winona State University, which is fifty-three miles due east of Rochester on the shores of the Mississippi River. Although it’s not a research university, it has dutifully divided its faculty among five colleges and scores of departments, seventeen in the College of Liberal Arts alone. It also takes a traditional approach to buildings. In the late 1990s, Winona decided to erect a handsome new brick and stone library on the corner of the central quad. The facility holds 220,000 volumes, employs seventeen people, and sports a terrazzo floor inlaid with images of the Mississippi River and quotes from Bob Dylan. In a nod to information technology, Winona added wi-fi and included a bank of computer terminals and comfortable chairs. The cost to Minnesota taxpayers: $17.7 million, plus annual expenses for maintenance and the seventeen people.

UMR took more or less the same approach in building its library, except without the brick, stone, floors, tile, books, engravings, people, or $17.7 million. UMR’s library consists of wi-fi, one librarian, a bank of computer terminals, and comfortable chairs. Students who need to borrow physical books get them through the University of Minnesota’s interlibrary loan. UMR’s entire print collection fits in the kind of small metal bookcase you can buy at Office Depot for $129. The bottom two shelves are empty.

Instead of living in subsidized dorms, UMR students rent privately owned apartments at a group rate negotiated by the university. Instead of working out at the kind of elaborate fitness center that many universities have built in recent years, they go to the YMCA, which organizes intramural sports. UMR is exclusively in the teaching and learning business. It turns out that if that’s the only business you’re in, you can do it very well for relatively small amounts of money.

Kevin Carey is the director of the Education Policy program at the New America Foundation.

Comments

  • Ruth Knollmueller on September 13, 2010 10:33 AM:

    Please correct your title--University of Minnesota at ROCHESTER----NOT Richmond.
    EGads.

  • Ron Mexico on October 06, 2010 8:08 AM:

    A fascinating article. The main point, of course, is that universities must attach themselves to large corporations that have deep pockets and a desperate need for highly-trained graduates. All of the wonderful innovations described flow from this one simple fact....

  • Dr. Mireia TintorĂ© on October 05, 2011 4:07 AM:

    Congratulations for this article. We used it as a case of study with our university teachers and was a great success