I am an experiential creature. When I find myself facing an existential dilemma within a group or an organization, I draw upon the populist hunches I’ve refined over the years—and then I take action. Only later do I indulge in reflecting upon that experience. The following few paragraphs provide context and give meaning to the circumstances and social interactions captured in the exchange of e-mails recorded below.

Minnesota has perhaps the most over-centralized system of public higher education in the nation. With the best of intentions, former Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe in 1991 orchestrated a consolidation of three independent systems—state universities, community colleges, and technical colleges—into an über-bureaucracy called the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU).

Moe and his legislative colleagues were oblivious to the unintended consequences that would follow. Established in 1995, MnSCU is now fittingly ensconced in the palatial and well-secured Wells Fargo Bank building in downtown St. Paul. This behemoth has now mushroomed to over 500 bureaucrats who implement policies and dictate procedures to its 32 member institutions.

A Board of Trustees, appointed by Governor Tim Pawlenty, governs MnSCU. Business leaders, including current and past executive directors of the Minnesota Taxpayers League and the Minnesota Business Partnership, dominate the board. The implicit philosophy that guides the board’s leadership is that MnSCU’s mission is to provide the vocational training that meets the needs of Minnesota employers.

Given this ideological bias, cost-benefit analysis trumps all other criteria for teaching and learning. The business model that the Trustees promulgate, and MnSCU’s minions implement, is one of mass production for mass education—resulting at best in employable masses, and at worse masses that are unemployed.

The good employee is, consequently, a well-trained worker bee. As you might imagine, the leadership qualities fostered by a traditional liberal arts education are, at best, an afterthought. The development of well-educated persons and well-informed citizens still does occur on our local campuses but in spite of, not because of, the Trustees and their over-staffed chain of command.

The first European universities developed in the 11th and 12th centuries in Italy, France, and England. By the 13th century, Peter Abelard had established at the University of Paris the progenitor of the modern college and university. Modeled on the medieval guild, Paris exemplified the principle of autonomy, a federated and self-regulating community of teachers and scholars.

Paul Goodman wrote The Community of Scholars in 1962. He saw an unbroken lineage between those medieval institutions and contemporary colleges and universities. He argued that there is one dominant ancestral trait in the genealogy of higher education: “The community of scholars is self-governing, and has never ceased to regard itself as such.” Nearly a half century ago, Goodman had already pinpointed the most toxic threat to this venerable tradition.

Will the community of scholars survive its present plague of administrative mentality? The ultima ratio of administration is that a school is a teaching machine [online learning is the latest iteration], to train the young by predigested programs in order to get pre-ordained marketable skills . . . Such training can, and must, dispense with the ancient communities, for they are not only inefficient but they keep erasing or even negating the lessons.

Am I living in Catch 22, or is it One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?

I received notice that you would like LIB 301 or LIB 218 for the following classes for Spring 2010 as a special request:
SSCI 452/01
SSCI 501/501G

Unfortunately these two spaces are designated as conference and meeting rooms rather than classrooms. Without getting into detail, there is a negative impact on our state utilization data when we use these as classrooms and the fact is our room allocations do not include them. If you are looking for small seminar spaces, I suggest FHL119, FHL120, or FH L121. We would be happy to work with you on assigning one of these spaces.
Jean Alaspa
Educational Services and Special Events Director

Jean,                                                                                                                                                                                                    Please understand that you are merely the recipient of this message [my e-mail was also copied to top administrators and faculty union leaders]. I realize you are only the messenger and are not responsible for this decision. Nevertheless, the implications of your message are an affront to every teacher and academic program at the university.

The values embedded in this decision to suddenly take two precious classrooms off the grid to meet the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system’s (MnSCU) perverse notion of education should be reprehensible to the leadership of any university worthy of the name. I only ask Metropolitan State’s administrative leadership one question: whose side are you on?

Let me see if I have this right. The university is in perpetual crisis over the shortage of classroom space. This is particularly true for space appropriate for seminars—there is none on the St. Paul campus. Suddenly, we take two of these rooms out of circulation, used only episodically for meetings and left sitting empty for the vast majority of the time. Why is this? To give the illusion of space allocation efficiency.

This is an absurd shell game—we are developing well-educated citizens, not producing widgets. The space allocation policies of the MnSCU Board of Trustees, none of whom to my knowledge has ever taught a college class, result in policies and procedures that resemble the accounting system of Enron.

The tail again wags the dog. It is outrageous that MnSCU utilization data requirements dictate the use of Metro State’s classroom space. Senior seminar rooms are for seminars. Once more, bureaucratic priorities trump teaching. Are we here to help, to the best of our abilities, students learn? No, we are here to meet the cost-benefit analysis of some bean counters that were obviously sleepwalking through their own education.

I ask that every administrator receiving a copy of this e-mail tour the three rooms that Jean mentions. These large lecture classrooms are entirely inappropriate for the purpose of senior seminars. I also suggest you read the appropriate literature about the importance of space in the process of teaching and learning, particularly for seminars. If you are unfamiliar with that literature, I would be pleased to develop a reference list for you. In lieu of that, let me quote the foremost proponent of the seminar format during the last half century, Mortimer Adler:

The seminar should be the very antithesis of the ordinary classroom or lecture hall, in which the teacher or lecturer stands in front of auditors who sit in row after row to listen to what he has to say. That kind of room may be ideal for uninterrupted speech and silent listening, but it is the very opposite for good two-way talk in which everyone is both a speaker and a listener.

Educational facilities should be a means to the ends of teaching and learning; at Metropolitan State, teachers are rapidly becoming mere factotums for the ends of a bunch of Suits in the Wells Fargo Bank building who know as much about quality education as GM executives knows about quality cars.
For your edification,

Dear Monte:
Thank you for your message. When we met on Thursday afternoon and you remarked that you were about finished with indignation, I was thinking of your latest message, rather than Philip Roth’s latest book (Indignation) and rather hoped things had cooled down. But your message deserves a response and what follows was drafted, principally, by Barbara Keinath, who has a good, working knowledge of the issues involved in the situation about which you wrote. This message is sent in behalf of both Barbara and me.

Your response to Jean Alaspa (who is very clear about working with you to find appropriate space for your classes) is, in part, right on target. It is also, in part, based on an incomplete understanding of the complex relationship between the use of our current classrooms, the MnSCU Space Utilization Score, and the need for more and more kinds of classrooms.

You are on target in reminding all of the importance of the physical environment to the teaching and learning environment. A room designed only for lecturing to a large number of students does not lend itself well to a seminar course. Your quote from Mortimer Adler says it well. The desire to match the room to the pedagogical needs of the course and instructor is one we all share.

Unfortunately, we have neither the numbers nor the kinds of rooms we need to achieve that desire for every course and every instructor. Further, we operate within a larger system that has the authority-and uses it-to establish processes and measures. And that is where a better understanding of the relationship between use of classrooms, the MnSCU Space Utilization Score, and our ability to get new buildings and classrooms becomes useful.

As required of all MnSCU institutions, we have designated some rooms as classrooms, some as labs (computer, science, etc.), and some as meeting or office space. The room you requested for your courses has always been a designated meeting/conference room. Although it may sometimes have been used as a classroom, it has never been designated as such.

One of the important factors in MnSCU’s ranking of institutional requests for new buildings and classrooms is the Space Utilization Score, which is a measure of the extent to which we fill our classrooms with courses and students. Only rooms designated as classrooms are considered in the Space Utilization Score, which means that scheduling a course into a room designated as a conference room, instead of in a designated classroom, results in a lower Space Utilization Score.

A lower Space Utilization Score means, potentially, lower ranking of our requests for new buildings and classrooms and delays in new construction (e.g., the classroom/office building we have been trying to build on the site of the condemned structure on the Saint Paul Campus),  which leads to a continuation of the status quo number and kind of classrooms. Obviously, this is a simplification of a complex process, but I trust it serves to convey the notion that Metropolitan State is better served if we can improve our Space Utilization Score.

That said, and coming back to your main point, the learning environment is important. As Jean Alaspa’s message to you indicated, she would be glad to work with you to identify the best available classroom space to meet your teaching needs and your students’ learning requirements for spring semester and beyond. If you are interested in doing that, please let her know.
Thank you.
William J. Lowe
Provost & Vice President for Academic Affairs

Dear Bill.
Your intuition was correct. As John Maynard Keynes might have put it, my “animal spirits” have diminished considerably since the original e-mail. Your response is a most rational and reasonable one. However, this rationality and reasonableness in response to the catch-22 that MnSCU and Governor Pawlenty have placed us in may, in fact, be the irrational compliance of a subjugated and cowed institution.

I chose the title of Joesph Heller’s novel to describe our situation with considerable forethought. One explication of the meaning of that novel’s title is as follows:

The title is a reference to a fictional bureaucratic stipulation which embodies multiple forms of illogical and immoral reasoning. That the catch is named exposes the high level of absurdity in the novel, where bureaucratic nonsense has risen to a level at which even the catches are codified with numbers.

MnSCU’s Space Utilization Score (SPS) may be, in itself, a catch that is “codified with numbers.” Even if we were to suppose that this is a rational and reasonable system, it remains impotent except as a means of punishing Metropolitan State. Let us not forget, the rationality of a bureaucracy counts for nothing when confronted with the animal spirits of the legislative process. Long before most of you were here, Governor Carlson first vetoed the building that was going to somewhat alleviate our classroom shortage. Despite our high rankings according to MnSCU’s bureaucratic stipulations, our classroom building has since been vetoed twice more. Before we engage in “happy talk” about the upcoming legislative session, remember that Gov. Pawlenty’s animal spirits toward Rep. Alice Hausman, St. Paul, and Metropolitan State show no signs of abating.

We need to exercise our own subversive creativity to overcome this catch-22. Like the Cowardly Lion, Metro State needs to overcome its fears and find the courage to fulfill our mission of teaching and learning.

MnSCU and the legislature process have held the needs of the faculty and their academic programs hostage since the mid-1990s. Enough is enough. There is nearly unlimited demand for classroom space in St. Paul. The Social Science Department is just one example: we get one classroom most nights of the week. We could easily fill three classrooms each night on this campus. Nearly every program based on the St. Paul campus would likely replicate this pattern.

Paradoxically, we have managed to take every potential seminar room off the grid. Because we have no seminar rooms, numerous non-traditional offerings are using in classrooms as traditional classes. There is still a sign outside the room on second floor of New Main that reads “Senior Seminar Room.” Ironically, administrative files fill this space. The St. Paul Room, formerly used for seminars, is empty nearly every night of the week, every week of the year. These rooms, and L218 and Lib 301, if advertised to all academic departments, would fill every night of the week. This would free up at least four other classrooms every evening.

If filling these potential seminar rooms nightly punishes us, then perhaps we are no longer in the world of Catch-22—we are actually incarcerated on a ward in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Dear Monte:
Thank you for your reply. I would have responded sooner, but, particularly at my advanced and accelerating age, it is not a simple to thing to get off my knees and back to the keyboard. You have pretty well covered the literary and theoretical waterfront, but please do not overlook Jean’s willingness to help to find an appropriate for your courses.

The classroom/office building that we are trying to get built here in Saint Paul will help to make more seminar-style rooms available. And, as you point out, the history of that project in the last couple of years has certainly not been especially encouraging. But, since you mention “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, something comes to mind about our efforts to finally get our new classroom building. Was it not McMurphy who said: “At least I tried.  At least I did that much.”

I am still working on the Cowardly Lion image.
Thanks, again, and all the best.
Subjugatedly yours
William J. Lowe
Provost & Vice President for Academic Affairs

Dear Bill,
Thanks for the best belly laugh I’ve had in weeks. I do appreciate your sense of humor in these matters. Like McMurphy, I had little idea of what I was in for when I managed to get my sentence stayed by entering an insane asylum. I anticipate that in the final act my Chair, Nancy Black, will be playing the role of Chief Broom, finally putting me out of my misery and allowing life to go on as usual around here.
P.S. Perhaps while we are awaiting the state’s largesse, facilities might creatively search the inventory for two or three “designated” classrooms that could serve as seminar rooms. That will require the purchase or movement of some large oval and/or rectangular tables and the acquisition of 15-16 comfortable chairs for each room. Perhaps some of our well-appointed meeting rooms could provide such resources, replaced, of course, with some uncomfortable chairs, lined up a row. At least then no one would doze off during important staff meetings.

So it goes. (Kurt Vonnegut)