Traditional universities complain that they need expensive amenities to compete for today’s entitled, hedonistic student. But the example of UMR suggests that students are quite happy to have something more modest. While UMR students have parties and take part in extracurricular activities—including a competitive ballroom dance team and something called “boot hockey,” which involves boots instead of skates and brooms instead of sticks—the students take their work seriously and stay busy. I asked every student I could find how much they work on academics outside of class. The typical answer: thirty to thirty-five hours a week. According to the nonprofit National Survey of Student Engagement, only 6 percent of freshmen at the biggest, most prestigious research universities work that hard. Nearly a third work ten hours or less. Eighteen-year-olds are highly sensitive to expectations and organizational culture. If you give them a lot of work and commensurate support, they’ll do it. If you give them little work, a lot of free time, and an elaborate social infrastructure centered on alcohol consumption, they’ll react accordingly.
We need more schools like UMR, public universities dedicated to teaching and designed from the ground up with the latest technological developments and research findings in mind. Existing universities cannot and will not provide this. They won’t be bulldozing their libraries, disbanding the champion basketball team, radically overhauling tenure, or demoting department chairs anytime soon. Most are doing something vaguely UMR-like—some interdisciplinary courses here, some professors experimenting with technology there. But this is a case where half measures are all but indistinguishable from no measures. Only new universities will do. Therefore, states should start building large numbers of new, innovative, highly focused, low-cost public universities.
Every state has at least one public research institution with a well-known brand name and the accreditation needed to open new branches right away. University systems can also provide support services cheaply using existing infrastructure. For instance, UMR contracts with the main Twin Cities campus to handle student financial aid applications, purchasing, and other administrative tasks.
Like Rochester, local governments will be eager to lend a financial hand. Municipalities routinely spend millions subsidizing shopping malls and condo developments. Why not universities, which bring culture, status, and prestigious jobs? A city the size of New York could easily build ten or fifteen new UMR-sized universities throughout the five boroughs, each focusing on academic specialties that match the city’s economic strengths in medicine, finance, media, culture, manufacturing, and international trade. Cities like Chicago could provide better options for students mired in chronically failing public universities such as Chicago State (see page 20).
Big cities aren’t the only potential location for such schools, either. Archer Daniels Midland, based in Decatur, Illinois, ranks twenty-seventh on the Fortune 500 and employs legions of scientists, chemists, and genetic engineers. Yet the only public higher education institution in Decatur is a community college. Many cities and towns across the country have economic and cultural strengths around which new public universities could be designed.
Students and faculty will flock to these institutions. Lehmkuhle was initially worried about recruiting students to an unknown university in a flat, cold city filled with people who eat dinner at 4:30 in the afternoon. Instead, nearly 400 students applied for 125 slots in the 2010 entering class. He was also concerned about finding good faculty, particularly given the unusually high expectations for teaching. Instead, it turns out that a lot of people like teaching, and are frustrated by traditional universities that care only about research.
The only real barrier to creating new public universities will be the objections of the existing ones. One reason it took so long to take the obvious step of opening a health-focused university in Rochester was pushback from existing southeastern Minnesota universities like Winona and Mankato State. Many existing universities see a threat from efficient, high-value institutions like UMR. And they should. Schools like UMR will put pressure on traditional institutions with bloated cost structures that have contributed to decades of skyrocketing tuition.
Indeed, there is plenty of ferment in higher education right now. It’s just all happening in the for-profit sector. Venture capitalists are buying up bankrupt private colleges and turning them into for-profit money machines. Corporate giants like the University of Phoenix now serve hundreds of thousands of students online. While many for-profits are at the cutting edge of higher education innovation, others are shamelessly ripping students off. New public universities would combine the best of both worlds—the kind of innovation happening in the private sector wedded to public values and purpose.
At the end of Rajeev Muthyala’s chemistry class, Muthyala was telling me about “personalized learning” when a young woman with spiky black hair and a small pink nose stud walked past us, an open laptop cradled in her elbow, and said, “Ooh, personalized learning,” with a smile as she walked out. I waited a moment until she’d left. “Do you think she doesn’t buy it?” I asked. “I’d be surprised,” Muthyala replied, with a look of concern. “She’s one of my best students.”
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