Minnesota State has too many campuses; here’s how to reduce them fairly

An accounting student helps a local Bemidji resident with their taxes at Bemidji State University. Any campus closing debate is complicated by the important role many colleges and universities play in their communities.

For a small state, we sure have a lot of state university campuses. Small means 5.64 million souls. Minnesota State Colleges and Universities has 54 campuses, serving more than 350,000 students. That’s a sprawling system! 

When it was set up — and funds for higher education were plentiful — the goal was that no Minnesotan should live more than 35 miles from a campus. This now seems like a luxurious notion, and also a terrible idea. If Minnesota can afford that for college students, why are so many of our people living in tents and sleeping on trains? Surely, the “state that works” can do better.

The system has become so unaffordable for students and taxpayers alike — especially as the state confronts a massive pandemic-caused deficit — that it’s hardly necessary to make the case for closing a campus, or two or three. 

One of the few gains of the COVID-19 experience is our increased familiarity with online learning. When we add this to the mix, Minnesota has more options to explore, and more flexibility than it has traditionally employed. As Rahm Emanuel famously cribbed from Winston Churchill, “Never let a crisis go to waste.”  

But how to reduce the footprint? And who decides?  

The last time we closed a campus in Minnesota was in 1992, when the University closed its branch in Waseca, and the streets practically ran with blood. It is hard to exaggerate the ruckus it caused, and higher ed was both scarred and scared by the experience.  

An unlikely source of inspiration: The Pentagon

The Pentagon has supplied a perfect blueprint with its base closing process, developed decades ago when the Department of Defense determined it had far too many bases on its hands, left over from World War II and the Cold War. Closing bases was thought to be politically impossible — any congressman who oversaw a base closing in his district risked his reelection chances. But given the need for savings, it was nevertheless imperative to find a way — so they devised a method that turned lawmaking on its head.

First, they set up a blue-ribbon committee to make recommendations, composed of members beyond reproach, half Republicans, half Democrats. Second, they got legislative buy-in — in advance. In other words, all must agree to abide by the committee’s recommendations and pledge to approve them. This is crucial — and perhaps not as difficult as it might sound — group pressure would ferret out any holdouts and shame them into the fold.  

Republican legislators would surely approve of the goal of saving taxpayer money, and Democrats would like to spend the money on other priorities, perhaps in a different area of higher education or in something else like early childhood education. 

Once established, the committee can roll up their sleeves and get to work. (Much of this could be done from home during social distancing, as it involves lots of reading and thinking. They could then meet virtually for discussions.)

It matters little whether the committee initially develops its own criteria, or the criteria are supplied by Minnesota State. (The list would include factors such as enrollment, condition of buildings, proximity to other colleges, etc.)  

But the list must be fluid and committee members allowed to add and subtract criteria, or weight them as they choose — for if they are not adjudged capable of doing this well, they would surely not be up to serving in the first place.

The committee should decide the number of campuses to close, up to a maximum of seven. This is less than 14% of the total. They should not close fewer than three, however; for this kind of opportunity would not recur anytime soon, and we need to save real money. 

And that leads us to the final goal: total savings. The entire budget is just over $2 billion, a 30 percent increase in the past 15 years, during years of low inflation. During that same period, enrollment was relatively stagnant. 

And so, it has come to this. Legislators are assumed to lack the courage to vote to close a campus in their own district, and lawmakers from their own party will support them. Administrators are no doubt afraid to aks lawmakers to take such a vote. 

And this state has limped along, decade following upon decade, increasing funding and keeping all of these locations going, whether actually needed and justifiable or not. We can do better than this, and if we need to take our lessons from the Pentagon, then that’s what we should do.

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Ms. McLeod is the mother of 3 adult children, and a retired attorney who practiced in general litigation, government relations, and mediation. She currently represents the community on two committees at the University of Minnesota, and is active in politics and community service.